Sir Walter Raleigh and the Uncertain Future of Space Travel
Originally published November 6th, 2014 by the New Yorker
Long before last Friday’s crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in the Mojave Desert, the economist Brent Lane had been thinking about failed missions and Sir Richard Branson, Virgin’s adventurous founder. Lane, a professor of heritage economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the director of the school’s Carolina Center for Competitive Economies, isn’t an expert on space travel—far from it. He is, instead, a scholar of the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh and of entrepreneurial finance, and, for several months before Friday’s crash, which claimed the life of a test pilot, Lane had been pondering parallels between Raleigh’s sixteenth-century sea voyages and twenty-first-century space exploration.
The crash of the SpaceShipTwo was the second catastrophe in a gloomy week for the commercial space industry. On Tuesday, an unmanned Antares rocket, bound for the International Space Station, exploded over Wallops Island, in Virginia. To Lane, last week’s accidents were “eerily reminiscent” of the kinds of travails that befell explorers like Raleigh who funded their voyages almost exclusively through private financing.
Last February, Lane was sitting at a hotel bar in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, when he decided to conduct an impromptu research experiment. As a board member of the First Colony Foundation, which researches Raleigh and his most spectacular failure, the lost colony at Roanoke, Lane became particularly interested in small archives and libraries in England that had recently put their holdings online. He thought that there might be new documents that would be able to shed some light on what Raleigh had been thinking. But there was a problem. Much of the information was written in Elizabethan English, making searches challenging. He thought that sixteenth-century terms might prove more fruitful than twenty-first-century ones. Between sips of beer, Lane typed the word “Wingacie”—shorthand for an Algonquin word that Raleigh’s men had learned on a voyage—into his phone’s Google search box.
He got a hit. The term appeared in an archive in Maidstone, England. Lane was pleased that his hypothesis had proved correct, but he didn’t know exactly what the search had found. After the two months it took to wrangle a digital copy of the document out of Maidstone, and then to translate it, Lane was startled to discover what appeared to be an investment prospectus for Raleigh’s later voyages—perhaps the world’s oldest pitch to venture capitalists.
“I felt I was sitting right there with Walter Raleigh putting this pitch together,” Lane told me. “Raleigh is sitting around with his team, and they’re trying to structure a pitch for these very skeptical merchants of England, trying to convince them to do something audacious.”
Lane has been studying the four-page document since, and has reached a few conclusions. One is that the paper explains much of Raleigh’s investment strategy, revealing his plan for convincing wealthy financiers such as the splendidly named Merchant Adventurers of Exeter to help pay for his risky expeditions across the Atlantic. But Lane found something else hidden in the letter’s curling Elizabethan script: a cautionary tale for commercial space companies, particularly private space travel.
The Wingacie letter—which possibly predates the ill-fated Roanoke-colony expedition by a few years—dispels the conventional assessment that Raleigh’s expeditions were blindly focussed on precious metals and quick rewards. Rather, Raleigh tried to woo financiers with promises of long-term profits made off of New World commodities, hinting at plentiful goods that more closely resemble grist for pharmaceuticals than snappy speculative profits. The play didn’t pay off long-term; a few years later, the Roanoke colony, poorly outfitted for a permanent outpost, forced its governor, John White, to return to Britain. In the three years that White was gone, the colony disappeared. To Lane, this illustrated a failure of the private market to sustain an enterprise as ambitious and as expensive as a New World colony—a sophisticated venture-capital strategy wasn’t enough.
“We’re facing a similar situation right now with space exploration. Will we succeed in our space ambitions or will we lose another colony, metaphorically or maybe literally, because we haven’t got that right balance between public and private support?” Lane asked me a few weeks ago, before the two accidents.
In Lane’s view, nasa, by depending on the private sector for exploration, has done what Queen Elizabeth did in Raleigh’s day. Since the end of the shuttle program, in 2011, the agency has turned to commercial companies like Orbital Sciences Corp, the company that launched the Antares rocket, and SpaceX, the aerospace venture launched by the entrepreneur Elon Musk, for resupplying the International Space Station. And, of course, nasa abandoned manned space travel altogether, ceding that delicate task to private companies such as Boeing and SpaceX, which already has contracts to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station, in 2017. Virgin Galactic’s short-term goal is more akin to space tourism, with wealthy passengers paying two hundred and fifty thousand dollars for short trips above the earth. Its funding comes from Branson and Aabar Investments, in Abu Dhabi. Virgin Galactic wants to offer suborbital commercial travel around the globe and, eventually, launch satellites and provide travel into the earth’s orbit.
Some industry analysts that I contacted didn’t buy Lane’s analogy. Before last week’s crash, I asked Marco A. Caceres, a senior analyst and the director of space studies at the Teal Group, an aerospace-market research company, about Raleigh and Branson.
“The idea of private companies developing capsules, rockets, spacecraft in general, where they would operate them and lease out the services to someone like nasa—this is a whole new area that has never really been tried, so there really isn’t any model to compare it to,” Caceres told me. nasa itself has studied historical precedents and concluded that the transcontinental railroad, with its bundled land grants, government payments, service contracts, and endorsements, is one of the closest analogues to private space travel.
The two have one undeniable thing in common: a spectacular price tag. “I think we should think of colonization as comparable to the space program in terms of the investment required,” the New York University history professor Karen Kupperman told me. Kupperman, who learned of the Wingacie document from Lane, agrees that the prospectus shows the amount of effort Raleigh had to exert to scrape together the funds for his voyages. There had been other, more predictable investment opportunities for financiers back then, she said; moreover, an ill-begotten voyage several years earlier had ended up a fiasco and a financial disaster. In that environment, the goal of colonization was hardly a foregone conclusion, much like how skeptics of space travel today question its relevance, given its expense, peril, and ambiguous returns. “Most Americans think of colonization as obvious, Of course you’d go and colonize in America. Obviously! But a point of view of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England was, Why would you? It’s incredibly expensive.”
Not only were sea-faring adventures expensive, success was hardly guaranteed. James Horn, the vice-president of research and historical interpretation at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, in Virginia, said that there was a staggering failure rate among all of the colonizing nations of Europe. “It would not be surprising if that happens again in the future with space travel, and particularly if there are private companies, there will be a huge risk and a huge failure rate, which means there’s massive profitability for the company that does make it and is successful.”
When I first started talking with Lane about Raleigh and space travel several weeks ago, the notion of a catastrophic failure in commercial space travel was hypothetical. After I contacted Virgin about speaking with the famously media-accessible Branson, a spokeswoman responded that Branson’s travel schedule precluded an interview, but that he might be able to answer questions in writing. On Thursday, two days after the Antares rocket explosion, the spokeswoman invited me to send questions in a late-night e-mail. Just before noon on Friday, I sent a list of questions. About twenty minutes later, the Virgin Galactic shuttle crashed in the desert.
Branson held a press conference on Saturday during which he was in turns mournful and optimistic. “In testing the boundaries of human capabilities and technologies, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Yesterday, we fell short,” he said. “We do understand the risks involved, and we’re not going to push on blindly. To do so would be an insult to all those affected by this tragedy. We’re going to learn from what went wrong, discover how we can improve safety and performance, and then move forward together. I truly believe that humanity’s greatest achievements come out of our greatest pain.”
The biggest question now is what lies ahead for the private space industry. There may be another lesson to be gleaned from Raleigh’s time: the failure of the Lost Colony set back New World colonization attempts almost twenty years. It wasn’t until 1606, when King James I granted the Virginia Company’s charter for what would become Jamestown, that a fresh attempt at colonization was made—this time, successfully. In 1609, the Virginia Company became a joint-stock company, selling shares to smaller investors in a move somewhat like an I.P.O. Jamestown struggled but persevered. As for Raleigh, his personal fortunes waxed and waned—he lost favor with Queen Elizabeth, then spent twelve years in the Tower of London, accused of betraying King James I, but kept on adventuring after his release, setting off on an expedition to find El Dorado. After he displeased the king, Raleigh was beheaded in 1618.
After the Antares rocket exploded, Lane wondered whether the accident would test the private market’s tolerance for risk as the Lost Colony did in Raleigh’s time. Two days later, he was on a long drive home when I sent him a text about the Virgin Galactic crash. When we spoke again afterward, he was circumspect. Up until two weeks ago, his comparisons of the risks of sixteenth-century exploration and twenty-first-century exploration were, at best, a loose analogy. Now, in the wake of disaster, in Lane’s mind, the corollaries have become much clearer.
“When Raleigh stepped in, this untested optimism had been sorely tested by disaster and fiasco and death,” Lane said. “That’s when he stepped up, and, even though he encountered difficulties along the way, he persisted. I actually think we’re closer to that. Branson and everyone else, like Elon Musk—are they going to step in or step back up in the wake of these kinds of problems? Everything that’s happened to date has been less illuminating than what happens now.”
- Theo Emery is a writer and reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a 2015 Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellow.