The 165-foot-tall rocket parts the air in front of its tip with a violent ripping sound; a setting sun gives its billowing trail of smoke a lustrous orange fringe. Mowry, president of the U.S. subsidiary of the European launch company Arianespace, cranes his head to watch the rocket soar from this equatorial spaceport, located on the northeastern coast of South America. But his attention is divided between the rocket and his customer, communications mogul Charlie Ergen. The co-founder of Dish Network is standing nearby, flanked by his wife and three of their children, all turning their heads in unison to watch the launch vehicle streak over the Atlantic. It's an oddly intimate family moment.
Ergen, No. 106 on Forbes's list of global billionaires, is famous for being a former professional poker player as well as serving as chairman of Dish Network and EchoStar. His face is surprisingly calm considering what's at stake: It's his $250 million satellite that's being violently blasted out of Earth's gravity well, loaded in the tip of a rocket that cost him another $270 million. The only hint of nerves during this July launch is found in his sandals?Ergen repeatedly transfers weight from one foot to the other.
The primary payload for this launch is the 13,500-pound EchoStar 17, one of the biggest communications sats ever built. (A small European weather sat is sharing the ride.) When placed in geosynchronous orbit?where the satellite can remain in position over one spot on Earth?EchoStar 17 will direct 60 beams that deliver download speeds of more than 100 gigabits per second to millions of Ergen's customers across half of the continental United States. The satellite should recoup the cost of manufacture and launch in just a few months.
Mowry's company is playing a longer game, for even higher stakes. A crash, a delay, or incorrect orbital placement would result in cancellations, design reviews, and lost orders. And these days there is plenty of competition. Ergen is known to shop for launch providers: He's hired Russian, Chinese, and Swiss firms to loft his communications birds. For Mowry, a routine launch is engineering nirvana. "We love the word nominal," he says after hearing a positive report from mission control.
The rocket shrinks in the sky from a gleaming white tube to a pinprick of light 40 miles high. Under binoculars, the single bright point divides into three. Twin dying embers fall away from the still-bright central speck?the empty solid-fuel boosters have detached. Moments later the clear weather enables the rarest spectacle of a launch: The light divides again as the fairing at the rocket's tip that houses the payload opens and falls away in a short-lived glimmer. "That's great, it's really rare to see that," Mowry says, grinning.
But Ergen does not smile. The safety of his sat is not ensured until it separates from the rocket's upper-stage payload bay. Viewers turn their attention to TV screens mounted at the viewing platform. Twenty tense minutes pass; Mowry fills the time by explaining to Ergen's daughter's boyfriend how Earth's spin at the equator helps boost hundreds of extra payload pounds into orbit.
At 27 minutes, word comes in: About 600 miles up, a little north of Australia, a clamp band opens, and springs around the upper ring push the satellite away from the adapter. Sat sep is confirmed. "Good job, boys," Ergen says, clapping. Then he reins it in. There is another team nearby waiting to hear if their weather satellite is safely away. Minutes later its release is confirmed, and the celebration begins.
That evening's party at the Ergens' hotel in Kourou includes carved meats, rum, seafood, fine wine, and, after dessert, Cuban cigars on the beach deck. Ergen talks about his family roots in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and receives reports on his satellite's health.
This is Arianespace's 49th consecutive successful Ariane 5 launch, and this reliability has made the company a powerhouse in the increasingly competitive space industry. An all-expenses-paid spaceport, government-supported insurance, and infusions of cash from a score of European nations help too. Arianespace gets $130 million a year from the European Space Agency (ESA) just to balance its books.
Most Americans don't know it, but the majority of the satellite services they enjoy use hardware lofted by European Union rockets. (The big exception is GPS, which is operated by the U.S. Air Force.) Nearly half of American-owned commercial satellites are launched from the EU spaceport in Kourou.
French Guiana's isolated jungle spaceport is not the only place where nations launch private-sector sats. Russia and China offer their services on the open market, and government-backed newcomers in Japan and India promise more competition ahead.
But in the U.S. something different is happening: Private companies, lightly subsidized by the U.S. government but operating on their own, are entering the commercial launch industry. If these U.S. upstarts succeed, they could drive prices down and use Earth's orbit to connect remote areas, empower personal electronics, and create high-tech jobs.
This is the 21st century's space race?one you've probably never heard of.