NEW ORLEANS – The evolution of the space race became very clear this week at the Collision media and technology conference.
That’s where Seattle-area tech entrepreneur and Moon Express co-founder Naveen Jain squared off on stage with Randy Glein, co-founder of the DJF Growth venture capital firm and an early investor in SpaceX (as well as Tesla and Twitter).
A discussion about the different approaches to getting into space launched into interesting territory when Jain suggested that SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Blue Origin backer Jeff Bezos weren’t making much of an effort in space.
“I love Elon and I love Jeff, and both are our neighbors at Cape Canaveral, so we are a good neighborhood there,” he said. “But – truth be told – they are all underachievers and unambitious people.”
The debate comes at a particularly interesting moment for all of the companies involved.
This week, SpaceX reached a milestone with the launch of a secret NROL-76 spy satellite and the safe return and landing of the Falcon 9 booster rocket that put the satellite into orbit.
Last week, executives from Blue Origin and several other space companies took the unusual step of urging senators to provide funding of the Federal Aviation Administration that oversees their industry.
Meanwhile, Moon Express and four other teams are aiming to launch robotic missions to the moon in hopes of winning $20 million in the Google Lunar X Prize competition. Their deadline comes at the end of this year. (One of the five teams, SpaceIL, now says it doesn’t expect to hit that deadline.)
The way Jain sees it, Moon Express’ lunar mission will trump anything that Musk or Bezos has done to date.
“They are all stuck in low Earth orbit so far – and we are going to the moon this year,” Jain said. “We are the only company in the universe that has permission to leave Earth orbit and land on the moon. So when we talk about underachievers, that’s where we put Elon and Jeff. But someday, when they can land on the moon, they can come talk to me about it.”
Truth be told, Moon Express hasn’t yet put anything in space, let alone on the moon. It’s relying on Rocket Lab’s low-cost Electron launch vehicle to send up its lander, but the Electron still has to face flight testing.
DJF’s Randy Glein joined Jain in criticizing the industry, although he didn’t name names.
“It is a travesty that we haven’t been to the moon in nearly 50 years – we’ve done nothing but kind of step backwards, from the moon to the shuttle and the space station and now low Earth orbit,” he said. “In some ways, we haven’t really advanced the ball that far.”
To the moon – and beyond
Moon Express, which was co-founded by Jain in 2010, sees its lunar lander mission as the first stage of a plan that would eventually see the company mining the moon for resources. And for all of Jain’s trash talk, Musk and Bezos have long-range lunar ambitions as well.
Last month, Blue Origin offered a sneak peek at the Blue Moon Lunar lander it plans to use to make deliveries to the moon’s surface in the 2020s, if NASA provides its backing. Meanwhile, SpaceX has laid out a plan to send two private citizens on a trip around the moon in 2018.
Mars is also on SpaceX’s interplanetary roadmap – which is something Glein admits he struggled to come to grips with.
“When we invested, it was hard for us – at least for me personally – to really get my arms around the vision of ‘we’re going to Mars, we’re going to colonize Mars,'” he said. “But what that vision did was instill an inspiration in the company and the people there and [serve as] a guidepost for the things they needed to achieve to get there.”
A new perspective
Glein also said that he thought the space industry was benefiting from the perspective of entrepreneurs who had no background in running space companies or space missions before setting up their companies.
“We got involved with SpaceX about eight years ago, and with Tesla around the same time,” he said. “What we saw in the vision that Elon had around those companies, as an example, was that we saw someone who hadn’t come from those industries, and wasn’t jaded or tainted by conventional wisdom but was willing to lead the way in bringing new technologies to life in industries that hadn’t seen fundamental innovation or transformation in decades.”