Elon, Masa and Boris. What could possibly go wrong?
马斯克、孙正义和约翰逊。能出什么错?

【双语】近地轨道争夺战 The battle for low-Earth orbit-书迷号 shumihao.com

SCHUMPETER IS ONLY an amateur stargazer. His equipment is no fancier than a pair of eyes and a place in the countryside, away from London’s light pollution. That is enough to make out Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn—and, occasionally, the International Space Station crossing the firmament. In the past few years a new spectacle has appeared, in the form of the Starlink satellites. Launched in batches by SpaceX, an American rocketry firm founded by Elon Musk, the tech billionaire behind Tesla’s electric cars, they resemble nothing else in the heavens, floating like a train of white dots in tight formation. Bad weather delayed the launch of the latest batch on July 8th. When they do go up, they will total nearly 600, making SpaceX the world’s biggest satellite operator.

本专栏记者只是个业余观星爱好者,手头的设备不过是一双肉眼和一处远离伦敦光污染的乡间居所。这也足以分辨金星、火星、木星和土星,偶尔还能发现穿越天穹的国际空间站。过去几年,天空中出现了另一个新奇观——星链卫星(Starlink)。这些卫星由拥有特斯拉的科技亿万富翁伊隆·马斯克创立的火箭公司SpaceX分批发射,看起来像一排紧挨着的白色亮点,不同于天空中其他一切星体。最新一批星链卫星原定于7月8日发射,但因恶劣天气推迟。等到这批卫星升空,轨道内的星链卫星总数将接近600颗,令SpaceX成为全球最大的卫星运营商。

SpaceX is a remarkable firm. It was founded in 2002, to further Mr Musk’s dream of colonising Mars. It is a case study in disruption—a startup with no track record has humbled incumbents like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Its rockets cost half as much as its rivals’ do, thanks in part to their ability to land their first stages for reuse rather than dumping them in the sea in line with standard industry practice. The firm was last valued at $36bn, more than better-known tech darlings such as Airbnb, DoorDash or Palantir.

SpaceX是一家非凡的企业。它成立于2002年,目的是推进马斯克的火星殖民梦。这家毫无资历的创业公司让波音和洛克希德·马丁等老牌公司自愧不如,堪称“颠覆”的典型案例。SpaceX的火箭价格是对手的一半,这在一定程度上要归功于它把第一级火箭降落回收,而不是像行业一贯所做的那样让它们坠入大海报废。该公司的最新估值为360亿美元,超过了爱彼迎、外卖公司DoorDash或大数据公司Palantir等更知名的科技宠儿。

SpaceX’s rocket business alone does not justify this rich valuation. The market for launches is small and stagnant. Mr Musk himself has said that the most his firm could hope to earn from them is around $3bn in revenue a year. If he is to make it to Mars—and if his investors are to see big returns—he needs another plan. This is where Starlink comes in. Those satellites visible from Schumpeter’s garden are the vanguard of a planned constellation of over 1,000, designed to beam the internet to every corner of the globe.

单凭火箭业务,SpaceX是难以获得如此高估值的。发射市场很小,且停滞不前。马斯克本人曾表示公司每年能从火箭发射业务获得的收入最多也就30亿美元左右。如果他要进军火星,而且如果投资者还要获得丰厚回报,就需要另作谋划。这正是星链的意义所在。星链计划发射1000多颗卫星,把互联网信号传播到全球每一个角落,现在从记者的花园里看到的这些卫星便是其中的“先头部队”。

Satellite broadband is not a new idea. But existing options are expensive and slow. Starlink’s cheap, mass-produced, low-flying satellites would, SpaceX claims, offer a service comparable to earthly broadband at competitive prices. It could serve poorly connected villages in rural Africa (or rural America for that matter), as well as oil rigs or cargo ships at sea. Mr Musk has noted that the global telecoms market is worth roughly $1trn. If SpaceX captured even a fraction of that, Morgan Stanley, a bank, recently opined, it could be worth anywhere from $50bn to $120bn or more, making its present valuation look like a bargain.

卫星宽带并不是什么新点子。但现有的选择又贵又慢。SpaceX声称这些批量生产的廉价近地星链卫星将以有竞争力的价格提供堪比地面宽带的网络服务,可为联网不便的非洲偏远农村(或者就网络服务而言同样偏远的美国农村)、海上石油钻井平台或海上航行的货船提供联网服务。马斯克指出,全球电信市场的价值约为一万亿美元。摩根士丹利近期表示,即便SpaceX只获取其中一小部分,价值也可能达到500亿至1200亿美元或者更高,令该公司目前的估值显得很便宜。

The world has been here before. Iridium announced similar plans in the late 1990s with gales of hype: the first call on its network was between Al Gore, then America’s vice-president, and a distant descendant of Alexander Graham Bell. Nine months later the firm went bust, swamped by the upfront capital costs of launching satellites. LeoSat, a firm based in Luxembourg, was founded in 2013. It shut down last year for lack of investor interest.

世界上不乏这类先例。铱星公司(Iridium)在上世纪90年代后期大肆宣传过类似的计划:首次通过其网络连线通话的是时任美国副总统戈尔和电话之父贝尔的一个曾孙。九个月后,该公司因无法负担发射卫星所需的庞大前期资本成本而破产。还有在2013年成立的总部位于卢森堡的LeoSat公司,因乏投资者问津而在去年倒闭。

Starlink’s chief competitor is OneWeb, with 74 satellites in orbit and hundreds more planned. It, too, went bust in March, after failing to persuade even Son Masayoshi (also known as Masa), a Japanese tech billionaire with a stake and a well-documented affection for risky startups, to pony up more cash. But it has new backers. On July 3rd Boris Johnson, Britain’s shaggy-dog prime minister, announced that his government had stumped up $500m for a 45% stake in OneWeb, and a golden share giving it control over its future. Bharti Global, an Indian telecoms firm, also put in $500m.

星链的主要竞争对手是OneWeb,后者拥有74颗在轨卫星,计划再发射数百颗。但在未能说服日本高科技富豪孙正义(持有OneWeb股份而且一贯爱好投资高风险创业公司)加大注资后,该公司也在今年3月申请破产。但如今它迎来了新的投资者。7月3日,英国那位头发乱蓬蓬的首相约翰逊宣布政府已斥资五亿美元购入OneWeb 45%的股份,并持有黄金股而得以控制该公司的未来发展。印度电信公司Bharti Global也投资了五亿美元。

Mr Johnson’s decision drew general bafflement—and an instant flurry of speculation about its rationale. Could he be trying to safeguard a domestic high-tech gem? Britain has long tried to nurture its small but sophisticated space sector and OneWeb is notionally a British firm; its parent company is based in Jersey, an island in the English Channel. But many of its operations, including satellite manufacturing, are in America. Perhaps the reasons were strategic? China was circling, claims one person close to the deal, and Britain pounced to frustrate its ambitions. Except that the American court administering the bankruptcy may be reluctant to hand OneWeb over to a Chinese firm. Politics almost certainly played a part. Britain’s exit from the European Union has limited its access to Galileo, the EU’s alternative to America’s GPS satellites. A bombastic promise to build an all-British replacement, at a cost of £5bn ($6.3bn) or more, looks dubious. Bolting a less capable navigation service onto OneWeb’s satellites may offer Mr Johnson a face-saving way to back down, while pushing back against the perception that Brexit has made the country parochial.

约翰逊的决定令很多人感到困惑,随即引起了对其背后动机的连串猜测。这是为了保护英国本土高科技公司吗?英国一直都想培育自己规模小但高精尖的太空产业,而OneWeb理论上算是英国公司——其母公司位于英吉利海峡中的泽西岛。但它的许多业务运作都在美国,包括卫星制造。或者这一决策是出于战略考虑?一位知情人士表示,中国正试探性地接触OneWeb,而英国的迅速出手挫败了其野心。不过负责处理这一破产申请的美国法院应该不会愿意把OneWeb交给一家中国公司。其中有政治上的考虑几乎是确定无疑的。英国脱欧限制了它使用欧盟的伽利略卫星定位系统(可替代美国的GPS系统)。英国政府曾夸口说要花费50亿英镑(63亿美元)或更多资金建立一套自己的卫星定位系统,这看起来并不靠谱。依靠OneWeb的卫星建立一套稍差一些的导航服务或许可以帮助约翰逊体面地从空头承诺中抽身,同时也可以反驳脱欧令英国变得孤立的说法。

Yet there are also hopes, according to insiders, that the bizarre acquisition may work on purely commercial grounds. OneWeb has priority over SpaceX for the bits of the electromagnetic spectrum needed to beam the internet from the heavens. Those satellite companies that survived bankruptcy—such as Iridium—have come out on the other side as viable, if somewhat dull businesses. Like railways in the 19th century and subsequent infrastructure projects, globe-spanning satellite broadband may become a viable proposition once the initial investors, who often overpay exuberantly, have been wiped out.

但据一些内部人士称,这宗离奇的收购也有可能完全是出于商业目的。在获得从太空发射互联网信号所需的部分无线频谱上,OneWeb比SpaceX有优先权。另一边,铱星公司等破产后重建的卫星公司也显现出可行性,尽管生意平平。就像19世纪的铁路和随后的基础设施项目一样,在往往大笔烧钱的第一批投资者被淘汰后,覆盖全球的卫星宽带也许能成为切实可行的计划。

And Mr Musk could use a rival in low-Earth orbit. Jeff Bezos, the biggest tech tycoon of all, is working on a similar project, but has yet to put any satellites into space. In the meantime, competition from OneWeb would spur innovation and prevent SpaceX from settling into a celestial monopoly.

而马斯克在近地轨道上也需要竞争对手。排名科技大亨之首的杰夫·贝佐斯正在研究类似的项目,但尚未发射任何卫星。同时,来自OneWeb的竞争将刺激创新并防止SpaceX安于太空垄断的地位。

A giant leap of faith

靠信仰飞天

Can the British government be a source of competitive pressure? The politest description of its entrepreneurial record is “spotty”—just ask owners of clunkers such as an Austin Allegro or Morris Marina, produced after the partial nationalisation in 1968 of British Leyland. OneWeb may need a further injection of cash if it is to complete its constellation. British taxpayers may never see a financial return on their investment. But if OneWeb keeps Mr Musk on his toes even for a little while, their loss may turn out to be global consumers’ gain. Stranger things have happened in space. ■

英国政府会成为竞争压力的一个源头吗?说起英国政府以往插手企业的成绩,“参差不齐”算是最客气的说法了,问问1968年英国利兰汽车公司(British Leyland)部分国有化后生产的奥斯汀·快板(Austin Allegro)或莫里斯·玛丽娜(Morris Marina)这类破车的车主便可知一二。OneWeb要建成卫星网络可能需要投资者进一步注资。英国纳税人可能永远不能看到他们的投资带来财务回报。但哪怕OneWeb能让马斯克多忌惮那么一会儿,英国纳税人的损失就可能会成为全球消费者的收益。太空中已经有过很多奇事了。