Colorado Springs, Colo. --Aerospace industry giants were giving a fresh crop of space cowboys a deferential nod at the National Space Symposium here last week. The startups--some founded by entrepreneurs who made their fortunes in technology--have ambitious plans for the civilian use of space.
Where launch and module ventures garnered snickers from aerospace stalwarts early in the decade, the efforts are now gaining quiet respect. Brewster Shaw, general manager of the NASA systems business unit at Boeing Co., said skepticism about commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) efforts at achieving spaceflight would be a mistake. And anything good for space commerce is good for NASA and the space community at large, Shaw said.
The new crew includes several founders who are veterans of the Internet revolution. Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, is the CEO of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., which he launched in 2002. SpaceX, as it is known, claimed a partially successful launch of its rocket on March 20, though it did not achieve orbit. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, meanwhile, has been less forthcoming about his company, Blue Origin, which has used a spaceport in west Texas to conduct test launches of a vertical-liftoff reusable vehicle.
From Russia with love
At the symposium, Las Vegas billionaire Robert Bigelow lifted the veil on his plans to develop a series of inflatable space modules over the next five years. Initial test vehicles have flown from Russian Dnepr rockets, modifications of SS-18 missiles, though Bigelow later will rely on special launch vehicles from another startup, Rocketplane Kistler Inc. (Oklahoma City).
Boeing executives see companies like Bigelow Aerospace and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactica, which dangle the possibility of "space holidays" before well-heeled consumers, as breaking ground for the expansion of the space market from government-only applications into the consumer realm. The lure of such a possibility was evident here last week, as former Microsoft Corp. executive Charles Simonyi became the latest "tourist" to plunk down $25 million for a trip to the International Space Station (ISS).
At the official unveiling of his plans last week, Bigelow had to dispel notions put forth by Rocketplane Kistler and some online commentators that he intended to design "space hotels." Not only are his modules less expansive than a true multidwelling hotel, Bigelow said he also intended to narrow his customer base to sovereign (nation-sponsored) clients and corporate clients. The sovereign customers would include only those types of spacefarers who would be cleared for an ISS trip.
Bigelow said his goal of offering a four-week, low-earth-orbit trip at an inclusive training and transportation cost of $14.95 million by the year 2012 was one step toward a goal of bringing the cost of space tourism to $30,000 or $40,000 per journey.
Bigelow's Genesis I was launched last summer by ISC Kosmotras, a commercial launch system jointly sponsored by Russia, Ukraine and the Republic of Kazakhstan. Its successor, the Genesis II, has already been shipped to Russia for a planned launch in late April. The Genesis II will have living passengers--ants and scorpions--and will feature 22 cameras linked via FireWire and Ethernet. The module is 4.4 meters long, with a diameter of 1.6 meters at launch, expanding to 2.54 meters after inflation in space.
Bigelow's Galaxy spacecraft, which is expected to launch next year, will carry test subsystems for human habitation. As early as 2010, the first true module--the three-person Sundancer--will launch. The year following Sundancer's flight, Bigelow will launch a bus-and-node superstructure to link with the BA 330, a six-person full-size module.
"Make no mistake about it, these vehicles will stay on the ground if we cannot show both technical feasibility and economic practicality," Bigelow said. "The manned launches will be based on a dry landing after orbiting, as we don't feel you can justify landing on water with commercial cost constraints."
While the modules are being developed, Bigelow is opening dedicated ground stations to communicate with the spacecraft. Communication nodes already have opened in Alaska, Hawaii and Nevada, and Bigelow wants a minimum of nine ground stations before moving forward.
Aerospace executives running through the details of NASA programs like Constellation and Orion admitted to a twinge of jealousy last week at the ad hoc nature of the startup launch and module companies. Where every vehicular design must go through layers of fault-tolerant and redundant steps mandated by the federal government for commercial spaceflight, entrepreneurs can cut a few corners in their designs.
The startups must assume the liability risk for transporting humans, of course, and the newcomers must comply with regulations from agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration and Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, the little information gleaned about Bezos' Blue Origin came from so-called "scoping hearings" the company held in Texas, required by federal law.
But compared with the layers of bureaucracy necessary for the NASA Constellation program, the space-tourist startup program seems easy.
Private enterprise will prevail
NASA administrator Michael Griffin said he does not have a problem with commercial launch and module companies applying different standards of redundancy and fault-tolerance to civil space missions than the ones NASA uses. If the FAA had attempted to mandate the structure for passenger airliner operations among the airlines and aerospace manufacturers, he said, the robust air industry that exists today would never have happened.
"The rules of private enterprise will determine the winners," Griffin said. "NASA has worked out a particular way to conduct space missions, but it's not the only way to do so. I would be shocked to the soles of my shoes if we had determined the best way to do things."
Griffin said he assumed the type of customers who might be potential space tourists would be well aware of the general risks involved in spaceflight and the particular risks that might be encountered with a launch vehicle or spacecraft developed in the private sector.
Show me the money
In a panel at the National Space Symposium on investment strategies, Musk and Bigelow joined with Virgin Galactica vice president of operations Alex Tai in stressing the role of private equity in augmenting national civilian space agencies like NASA.
Bigelow said the suborbital business was challenging enough to warrant calling its pioneers the "space musketeers," but it also carried the promise of being profitable within a decade--provided commercial efforts went beyond rich space tourists into sovereign-nation astronauts and corporate leasing clients.
Demand exists today: Virgin Galactica has received $20 million in deposits based on the work of a sales staff of two, Tai reported. The key to making the company viable for regular launch, he said, was to reject the busy Mojave Space Port in California and to work with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson at creating a dedicated Virgin spaceport in that state. Virgin anticipates spending $250 million up front before achieving revenue, he said.
Musk, who is aiming at a mix of cargo and passengers for his SpaceX systems, said that his company expects to have a positive cash flow by the end of this year--notwithstanding the joke that "the commercial space industry turns a large investment into a smaller fortune as quickly as possible." SpaceX has gained customers from developing nations, from intelligence agencies and from NASA's COTS program.
"I'm pretty satisfied," Musk said. "The philosophical objectives of creating a private space company and turning a profit are closely aligned."
Tai said that some space platforms don't really showcase the innovation capabilities of the U.S. engineering community. The impetus of a competitive environment replete with startups could spur the type of innovation seen in the computing industry, he said.
Hoyt Davidson, general partner of Near Earth LLC, said that physical exploration of space needs to be publicized so as to bring young engineers into startups. If it takes billionaires like Bigelow and Branson to jump-start the process, Davidson said, so be it.