Talking About the Latest Space Race With Christian Davenport

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On this week’s episode of Industry Focus: Wildcard, catch host Jason Moser’s full interview with The Washington Post space reporter and author of The Space Barons, Christian Davenport, as they talk about Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and the business of space!

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This video was recorded on June 30, 2021.

Jason Moser: It’s Wednesday, June 30th, I’m your host Jason Moser and on this week’s Wildcard Wednesday show we’re talking space with Washington Post space reporter and author of “The Space Barons,” Christian Davenport. While we ran an […] of this interview on last week’s Motley Fool Money radio show, on today’s Industry Focus we have a full unedited interview where we get into a whole lot more. We hope you enjoy our conversation.

[…]

Thanks so much for joining us.

Christian Davenport: Sure, thanks for having me.

Moser: Real quick as a refresher here, explain Bezos and space flight and its significance or even lack thereof in regard to this space race. I mean, in other words, is this really something that matters in the long run as far as the investments in the race toward space go, or is this an Evel Knievel kind of thing?

Davenport: Well, in some ways actually it’s both. I mean, it’s an Evel Knievel kind of thing in the sense that this is a suborbital space flight. This is a 10 minute ride in total, where it shoots up and comes straight back down. It’s the first human space flight for Bezos’ company, Blue Origin. A lot of people don’t even still to this day realize that Jeff has a space company and that he has these ambitions in space, that they’re finally after 20 something years flying people, and Jeff has raised his hand and said, I’m going to be on that first flight, that’s designed to show his confidence in the vehicle and the rocket and his brother is going as well. But it’s significant in the sense that if he can fly people routinely on a regular basis, that sets the stage for bigger, more ambitious missions. That’s really what Blue Origin is designed to do. These suborbital space tours and flights, that’s practice for the big game, which is routinely taking people to orbit and then to the moon and beyond. Think of it as a stepping stone.

Moser: Were you surprised when you heard this news? I mean, were you surprised when you heard that Jeff wanted to go into space?

Davenport: Yeah, no. I think everybody was. I mean, space is there’s a lot of hype and it’s inspiring and you see it in pop culture and in the movies, it’s romanticized. But in reality, it’s dangerous. It’s really dangerous. To put yourself on that flight, you have to be thinking. But it is interesting too. I mean, it makes sense once you realize that he will no longer be CEO of Amazon at that point, he will have stepped down from Amazon, because I don’t think the Amazon board would have allowed it. I mean, it is risky, but they’ve flown the new Shepherd vehicle, this configuration, 15 times to space successfully. They’ve done it and done it and done it. There are abort scenarios, emergency scenarios, they’ve played all that out. Yeah, I was surprised he was on that first flight.

Moser: I agreed with you, I was surprised as well. It’s romanticized, of course, obviously, a tremendous risk, but clearly he is very excited about it. But what do you think this looks like years from now? I mean, now that the cat’s out of the bag so to speak, I have a hard time believing this is the only time he does this. I mean, are we looking at the early days of Jeff Bezos, astronaut?

Davenport: Yeah, and early days of us being astronauts.

Moser: Yeah.

Davenport: They did auction off that seat to see who is going to fly with Jeff and his brother Mark and it went to $28 million, which is crazy that you would think that that’s what someone would pay for a 10 minute ride to space. But I think, again, there’s a caveat to all of this, that they’re able to do it successfully and reliably and safely. If that happens, there have been a total of 560 people who have ever been to space.

Moser: Wow.

Davenport: Imagine Blue Origin starts taking people on a regular basis, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX instead of it being 560, it’s 5600. Then within a matter of years, as you talked about, it’s 56,000 people who have had this experience of going to space, seeing the earth from a distance, land masses without borders, the thin line of the atmosphere. That transformative experience that astronauts come back and they talk about. That could have a profound effect. But I think what Jeff’s goal is, yeah, he’ll go up and down on a suborbital space trip. I think what he really wants to do and is working toward is the next step, which is New Shepherd, is name for Alan Shephard, the first American in space that just went on one of these suborbital trajectories, the next rocket they are building is called New Glenn for John Glenn, who went to orbit. I could see Jeff ultimately doing that and going to orbit at some point.

Moser: Let’s say 10 years from now, obviously, we’ve made a lot of progress in the space. On a personal level, is this something you’d be interested in doing one day?

Davenport: Yeah. No, absolutely. I’ve talked to Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson about it. I think that if the public is going to be doing this, a journalist should go to experience it and see what it’s like and be able to tell the story. In fact, that’s what NASA was going to do. I mean, people forget, early days of the space shuttle. They thought the shuttle was going to be flying so frequently that NASA would need ordinary people to fill the seats. If you remember, they filled the seat with a teacher, Christa McAuliffe.

Moser: Yes.

Davenport: In 1986, and obviously she was aboard shuttle Challenger when it exploded. But at that time NASA was already looking at the next round, which was going to be a journalist. They had thousands apply. They had our list of 40 finalists by the time that Challenger launched. They were already working through picking out who the journalist was going to be. Obviously, they canceled that program when Challenger blew up. But yes, journalists have been talking about going to space for a long time and I want to be there.

Moser: Well, as someone who writes for The Washington Post, which is of course owned by Jeff Bezos. How do you and your colleagues feel about this? Is there some trepidation about the fact that he’s going into space?

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Davenport: Well, you wonder what the succession plan is going to be. But we cover Jeff the way we cover anybody else. There’s no fear or favor when we say that. That’s true that he doesn’t have a hand in the editorial decisions and he is going to go and that’s just his choice and he can be able to do that. I’m sure there’s a succession plan in case anything would happen, but I do think that the fact that he is going tells me there is a high level of confidence in the safety of this system. They’ve really, really put it through its paces and tested it, and frankly, I would go.

Moser: Yeah, I’m glad you said the word confidence, and I think that’s a really important word in regard to this. It leads me to my next question because we, of course, want to take this from an investing angle. I start looking at what’s going on here. The investments have been made in Blue Origin, and Jeff going into space, you start thinking 10, 20, even 30-years out as an investor, what kinds of opportunities do you think could come for investors from all of this space work? He is stepping down as the CEO of Amazon and I guess he’s really technically stepped down. Is this his second act? Could we be witnessing some sort of the early days of another Amazon-esqe sort of investing opportunity from all this?

Davenport: Yes. The way Jeff talks about it is that when he started Amazon, anybody could start an internet company in their dorm room. There Zuckerberg created Facebook, because the telephone company had been there and laid down the lines that ultimately carried the broadband for the internet. There was this thing called the postal service that could deliver the books that he was selling. There’s this invention called the credit card and he could take people’s money to sell those books. The infrastructure for Amazon was there. The infrastructure for space is not there. You can’t today start a space company in your garage, and what he wants to do, and what Elon wants to do, is create that infrastructure to space. The barriers to entry are just too high. What we’re seeing now is the dawn of a new age, what Jeff calls as new economic dynamism can come to life but in space where you’re doing things like manufacturing in space, mining asteroids, celestial bodies, things like that, exploring. This can open up all new sorts of possibilities like the internet did. That’s what they’re hoping to build, but now you can’t get there, it’s too hard. That’s why I was saying earlier, the space tourism thing is often derived as this thing for the rich. The way Jeff sees it is no, this is the practice we’re going to get to go to space so we can make it more affordable and efficient and then open up all of those economic opportunities in space.

Moser: I am with you. I think I asked you last time we spoke if you felt like going to the moon in my lifetime was a reality and I believe you said yes, I’m with you. I’d go too, I really would. This is something that just fascinates me and I really do feel like there’s so much potential here for this. A lot of the time, when it comes to these types of investments, these types of long term trends here. Clearly, capital is a big deal. These companies, these investors need a lot of money. Obviously, Mr. Bezos is not hurting in that regard, but by the same token with Blue Origin, on a scale of 1-10, with one being no way on Earth, and then 10 being, I can’t wait, what do you think his feelings on taking Blue Origin public, do you think we’ll ever see that?

Davenport: That’s a great question. They say space is hard and the easy way to become a millionaire in space is to start out as a billionaire. I wouldn’t rule it out because he’s got huge ambitions in space. There’s a reason why only governments operated in space and human exploration. Governments had a monopoly on this for 50, 60 years and we’re seeing the erosion of that. But still, the government is still the biggest contractor. They’re still the biggest customer and they’re all contractors vying for these government contracts worth billions of dollars. If it becomes a self-sustaining economy, you’re going to need more access to capital to get over that tipping point. I could see it. 

Another reason I say that is I go down to antique Cape Canaveral a few times a year for launches, see people. Every time I drive by, Blue Origin has a manufacturing site right near the Kennedy’s Space Center. It’s like a college campus, it is massive. I know he’s investing $1 billion a year of his own money into this. Jeff says that Blue Origin is the most important work he’s doing. I do think he’s all-in on this, but if he’s going to open up a whole new industry to open up space for commerce, I don’t know that that’s something that like Elon and Jeff and Richard Branson and can do on their own. That seems like that’s a societal thing, moving along with governments and even international partners. I could see it, I don’t think it’s on the short term horizon, but maybe at some point if they have a big ambition, you want to build a colony on the moon, that’s not cheap.

Moser: That’s so cool, you go down to Cape Canaveral for those launches. I mean, what is that like from a personal level? I have never seen a launch before. It strikes me as being something that would be utterly life changing, but how does that impact you as a human being? 

Davenport: A rocket launch, I would highly recommend it. Take the family, take the kids and go see it. I got on there. You see a lot of the Atlas V launches for the United Launch Alliance, SpaceX’s Falcon 9. You got to be a couple of miles away from it. You’re not allowed too close in case something bad happens, there’s a clear out zone, you’re two, three miles away. When that rocket takes off, you feel it in your chest. Because sound travels a little bit slower, it takes a minute for that sound to hit you. Literally when I say “hit you,” it hits you. There’s a wave that comes over you. The cool thing now is for years I’ve been watching these rocket launches and it’s satellites going up, not humans. Now, we’re back to human space flight. SpaceX launched the first NASA astronauts in almost a decade because the space shuttle retired in 2011, so there were no astronauts launching from U.S. soil until that happened last year. SpaceX has done it three times. When you look at that rocket and that ball of fire and you realize that, Wait a minute, there are people on that thing. I mean, that gives it that extra emotional level.

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Moser: We see this push and pull between private interests like Blue Origin, and then the public interest, governments trying to invest and make progress in this area, but it feels like there needs to be some cooperation. But by the same token, it also feels like one side, maybe once and a little bit more than the other. The future of space travel, to me, it seems like it’s going to require all hands on deck, but I don’t know. Is this something you feel like it’s going to continue to be a cooperative or is it leaning in one direction more so than the other?

Davenport: Yeah, that’s a great question. Early on, this public-private partnership, where NASA was reaching out to the private sector and hiring them for services, was really controversial. Even within NASA, people at the government space agency were like, “Why are we outsourcing space? Why are we giving space these missions over to Elon Musk? This is what we do. We should do this.” Then I think other people within NASA could see the commercialization of space and see the capabilities in the private sector and see how frankly, they can move faster. They can innovate, they’re not a big government bureaucracy. They can just move a lot quicker and say, “No, we need to harness that and leverage that and invest in that and build up that capability in the United States industry, and that will allow us, as a space agency and as a country, to do more and to go further and to have this sort of leadership in space.” The fascinating thing is, that has transcended governments and parties within the US. It doesn’t matter if it’s a democrat or republican. We saw with Obama, we saw with Trump, and now we’re seeing it again with Biden. It’s become normal to have these public private partnerships is, is now normal to have Elon Musk fly U.S. astronauts to the international space station. Their lives are in his hands. That was enormously controversial, and NASA first decided to do it. Now, it’s becoming more accepted and routine. They’re talking about taking that paradigm and extending it to get us to the moon, and relying on private industry to help us get to the moon, so it’s a huge shift.

Moser: I’m glad you mentioned Elon Musk, clearly, he plays a big role in this as well. The investments toward getting into space and beyond, do you feel like it’s the rivalry between Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, is that real or is that more of a media narrative?

Davenport: No, I think that is real for sure, they’ve gone for a long time. It’s maybe overblown, but there are key moments. Just look at what happened when there’s this big NASA contract to build the lunar lander, the spacecraft that would land NASA’s astronauts on the moon, and there was an initial round of contracts and Blue Origin, Jeff’s company came out on top. They won the most funding, but in the final down select, SpaceX won and beat everybody, and it was a huge shock. Blue Origin turnaround, they’ve now protested this through the GAO, Government Accountability Office, they filed basically a lawsuit to try to overturn that contract award. They are working through Congress to try to have multiple awards. Elon and Jeff have gone at it. There is a real rivalry there for sure. The bottom line is that at this point, Elon is winning and winning big.

Moser: Yeah, it feels like that rivalry needs to exist though. It goes back to that old saying, “Competition is a good thing.” This is something that’s ultimately going to make this better, it’s going to get us there faster. Hopefully, more safely. Speaking of getting places, it seems like the discussion with Elon Musk really all centers around Mars. Do you think we’ll see Elon Musk go to Mars in our lifetime?

Davenport: Well, it all depends on this new next generation rocket he’s building called Starship. You may have seen the videos, this is a thing that falls down. They’ve been trying to land it, they’ve blown it up five times and they finally landed it. This is the spacecraft actually that NASA put up for that lunar lander bit that would land astronauts on the moon. NASA looked at it very carefully and awarded SpaceX basically $3 billion to continue developing it, and this is the rocket and spaceship that Elon says will eventually take people to Mars. I used to be very skeptical whether we would see people on Mars in our lifetime, and I’m starting to think that maybe that is, in fact, a possibility. Elon’s talking about the next four to five years until this happens. I don’t think that’s a possibility, but I do think within 15, 20 years or now, maybe.

Moser: It does feel like he over promises sometimes. But that’s probably a good thing in this case. You want to keep that interest there and certainly he’s doing that. We talk about Musk, we talk about Bezos. In your book, The Space Barons, there’s some great back story there in regard to Richard Branson. Clearly, his passion for space is there, but is it me or I don’t mean to offend, but why does Richard Branson feel like a third wheel on all of us?

Davenport: Well, his ambitions are not quite as big. Elon is already flying people to the space station. He’s won a contract to go to the moon. Jeff is also working on a big rocket that will go to orbit and a spacecraft that would land on the moon. Richard focused on essentially how the space plane would be tethered to the belly of this mother ship. It’s like an airplane, it goes to 50,000 feet. The space plane drops. It has a rocket engine on it that fires and goes straight up to space, pulling maybe Mach 3 or so three times the speed of sound. You do get to space and you can unbuckle and float around the cabin and have that experience which you are in space for like four minutes, five minutes. That’s it. Then you come straight back down, you don’t go to orbit. I think that potential if they’re able to do it reliably could be a sound business. They’ve been working on it for some time and frankly struggling to get there, but they are getting closer, they’ve been to space three times with people. Richard is not talking about going to the moon or going to Mars. He’s talking about that suborbital space tourism and this idea that if you can go to space and you take off, they leave from Spaceport America and you go up and come straight back down. What if instead of landing back where you took off, you land at say in Tokyo? You’re in space, you are out of the atmosphere. Put a little more juice in it and then you get to Tokyo in an hour, this idea that you can travel very high-speed across the globe. But I think that’s still years and years away from happening, but he does talk about that. I don’t want to limit it to just the space tours. He is looking at a way to do a transportation network.

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Moser: Got you. Looking at it just from a little bit of a different lens, that makes sense. Just like we talk about in sports, we talked about the up and comers, the prodigies. Are there any up and comers that you know of today that you feel like will be able to help carry this torch in the future? At some point or another, time waits for no one. Are there any up and comers that you feel like are going to continue to keep this conversation going?

Davenport: Yeah, there are a number and they don’t get as much attention because they don’t have Bezos or Musk or Branson caps to them. But there is a company called Relativity Space that’s doing 3D manufacturing of its rockets. They’re 3D printing everything. They are a rocket company and a space company, but really what they are is a manufacturing company and I think the upsides for what they’re doing can be applied to a lot of different industries. Particularly, when you look at manufacturing in space, they got, I think it was $500,000 from Mark Cuban on a cold call. In their last funding round, they raised a lot of money. I think they’re one that people in the industry are looking at that really could do some significant things. They’re run by a relatively young guy who used to work in SpaceX and Blue Origin, but a lot of people think they’re for real.

Moser: As we move forward in this opportunity, this space story, as it continues to develop, what’s your biggest questions or something that you personally are focused on in the next several years? What are you watching going forward?

Davenport: One of the things I’m really interested in is when there’s a commercialization of space, how do we as a society, how does Congress react if there’s a catastrophic event? We’ve had those and space is just so risky, you hate to bring it up and rain on people’s parade, but it’s just a fact of life in space that it’s just so dangerous. When there was a Challenger disaster in Columbia, those had huge ramifications. Congressional inquiries, NASA was shut down for flying for a year or more. If that happens with some tourists, is there a similar reaction? Or is it more along the lines of people climb Everest all the time and die on Mount Everest? If you’re crazy enough to do that, you’re crazy enough to go to space? That’s on you, nobody shuts down Mount Everest. Literally, when you’re climbing that mountain, you’re stepping over bodies in some cases that are entombed on the mountain. It’s a very dark thing to talk about, but if there is a disaster, is the enterprise going to shutdown? Is the industry going to close? Or will people persevere and carry on and say, “No, this is hard, this is dangerous, the risk is worth it and we’re going to move on? ” That I think is a huge question. Hopefully, maybe we’ll never cross it. I tend to think that there is going to be an accident at some point?

Moser: That is to think about it. It’s hard to imagine that doesn’t happen at some point unfortunately, but it’s the nature of this business, so to speak. It is incredibly risky and yeah, I’m with you. It seems like it’s going to happen at some point. I was reading a recent article of yours in regards to China in space and the relationship with the United States. It feels like at least based on what I was reading from you, it feels like there’s no love lost there. It doesn’t seem like there’s going to be any real cooperation in the near-term, at least between these two nations. How do you think Jeff Bezos views China when it comes to space? Do you feel like he views China as a threat or do you think he would prefer a more collaborative relationship?

Davenport: It’s interesting. The U.S. government and NASA are effectively prohibited from partnering with China in space. That was a lot that came down through Congress some years ago. That’s why, for example, on the International Space Station, we work with Russia, who is a competitor. But China is not there and China is actually going off on their own and building their own space station. They’ve already landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, which has never happened before. They just landed a Rover on Mars. They are now the only other country besides the U.S. to have done that. I think when it comes to the space barons, Richard, Jeff, I think they want more going together. I’ve not talked to Jeff about his thoughts on China specifically, but I do think that there is this idea, this notion that if humanity is to get off Earth and to explore the cosmos and have what Jeff says, he says he wants millions of people living and working in space. That’s hard for one company to do. It’s hard for one country and one government. It takes all industry countries working together to do it. If you think about it, we have had astronauts living in space on the International Space Station for more than 20 years. There has been a continuous presence of people living in space for two decades, nobody’s died. It’s amazing if you think about that. That is a collaboration between many nations and governments coming together to pull something like that off. It is so difficult, and if we’re going to go to the moon and go to Mars, it’s almost like the more the merrier, and we just have to come together. I think that’s basically what they would think about that.

Moser: That’s going to do it for us this week, folks. Remember, you can always reach out to us on Twitter @MFindustryfocus or drop us an email at industryfocus@fool.com. As always, people on the program may have interest in the stocks they talk about and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, so don’t buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. Thanks as always to Tim Sparks for putting the show together for us. I’m Jason Moser, thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis — even one of our own — helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.



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