Jump On Board the Private Space Train
Here is a quick preview of coming attractions in private space enterprise, from Wired.
“When you give these Silicon Valley guys a billion dollars,” said astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell of Harvard, who tracks rocket launches, “Their first thought is ‘Cool, now I can have my own space program.’”
“I don’t expect them all to succeed, but I don’t expect them all to fail,” said space lawyer Michael Listner, founder of Space Law & Policy Solutions. Taken together, the companies’ ambitions underscore just how much times have changed. “About 10 years ago, if you presented one of these plans, people would have looked at you like you’re crazy. Now people can say, well it’s a little crazy, but considering what’s been done, it might be possible.”
Perhaps the most important factor was the trailblazing success of SpaceX, a commercial rocket business started by entrepreneur and PayPal founder Elon Musk. This year, the company conducted two launches to the International Space Station using their Falcon 9 vehicle, with the second mission bringing supplies and helping prove that SpaceX was on the path to ferrying astronauts.
The company is already planning their next rocket, the enormous Falcon Heavy, for launch in 2013 and recently won important contracts with the U.S. military to deliver hardware to space. With all these notches on his space belt, Musk is no doubt already eyeing the perfect ridge for his retirement home on Mars.
Falcon HeavyThough not announced this year, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy has been a hot topic as the company prepares to launch this new rocket in 2013. Once operational, the vehicle would be the most capable existing rocket, able to bring 120,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit for as little as $1,000 per pound. The closest current spacecraft is United Launch Alliance’s Delta rocket, which can take 50,000 pounds up at a cost of $6,000 per pound.Falcon Heavy has a number of other companies hoping to ride on its success. Both Golden Spike and Mars One plan to use the vehicle in their operation while NASA and the military are also looking forward to its capabilities. The question for SpaceX is just how soon they can get the new rocket ready.
Golden Spike CompanyThe most recently unveiled audacious space venture is the Golden Spike Company, which wants to take people back to the moon by 2020. For the low, low price of $1.5 billion, Golden Spike will land a two-person crew on the lunar surface and safely return them. Given the expense, the company is targeting governments without large space programs that may be looking for a little international prestige.Golden Spike has a team with technical chops, including planetary scientist and former NASA science administrator Alan Stern and former NASA flight director Gerry Griffin. The business hopes to make use of low-cost existing rockets as much as possible to cut down on their expenses and estimates the entire scheme could cost as little as $7 billion. All of the experts we asked praised the company’s mission architecture as fairly plausible.
Planetary Resources, Inc.Asteroid mining is a staple of science-fiction, transplanting a familiar Earth-based activity to the new frontier of space. Many of the resources we dig up from underground on our planet were in fact laid down during an asteroid impact billions of years ago. So let’s cut out the middleman and simply mine riches from the skies.Such is the thinking behind Planetary Resources, Inc., which revealed their asteroid mining plans in April. The company hopes to extract water and precious metals, such as platinum, in order to get a return on their investment. Shortly after the unveiling, the internet reached a fever pitch about Planetary Resources, with Jon Stewart even calling in astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson just as a sanity check on the whole endeavor.Planetary Resources' biggest strength comes from its financial backing, with founders Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis veterans of both Silicon Valley and space technology. Other rich luminaries behind the company include Google CEO Larry Page, Microsoft chief architect Charles Simonyi, and even filmmaker James Cameron. The company’s goals are very long term, with simple plans to launch telescopes to identify and catalog near-Earth asteroids in the next few years, and the actual mining and resource extraction as much as 20 years away.
B612 FoundationNearly overshadowed by that other private asteroid business, the B612 Foundation’s announcement in June was nonetheless important. The nonprofit company hopes to raise money to launch an infrared telescope that will be ever vigilant for dangerous asteroids hurtling toward Earth. Though NASA is already watching for these potentially civilization destroying rocks, B612 said they would be able to more than double the near-Earth object catalog in their first month of observation.The company has some good technical backers, including former Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart and former shuttle astronaut Ed Lu. As a nonprofit, B612’s approach most closely resembles a philanthropic foundation looking to build a new wing for a hospital. While donors are used to the idea of such charity on Earth, can B612 convince people that the same model works for a space telescope?
Mars OneGetting people to Mars has long been a goal of the spaceflight community. While many thought it was the next logical step after the Apollo program, the United States has never been able to commit to the necessary funding for such a mission. But now a private company named Mars One has stepped in with their own audacious plan.Announced in May, Mars One has an extremely aggressive goal: land a crew of four on the Red Planet by 2023. The company hopes to cut costs with a radical mission. They intend to send people on a one-way trip to set up a colony, with a new set of four settlers arriving every two years after the initial touchdown. Mars One said it intends to pay for the plan by creating “the biggest media spectacle in history” with a reality TV show that will follow the astronauts.
The Google Lunar X-PrizeIntended to stimulate new ideas for exploring the moon, the Google Lunar X-Prize was announced in 2007. The goal is for a small private team to land an autonomous rover on the lunar surface, travel about 1,000 feet, and beam back high-definition images and video. The first team to do so will win $20 million, and constellation prizes are offered for other tasks.The prize’s deadline was originally meant to expire this year but after insufficient progress was made, the foundation extended their target date to the end of 2015. While more than 20 teams are still technically in the running, very few are where they need to be right now to claim the reward and accolades. Though 2015 seems a while away, this year and next are “really a make or break period for the teams left in the competition,” said journalist Jeff Foust.
Private Space TourismWe live in the future! You may not have a personal jet pack but, if certain schemes pan out, you couldone day afford a few minutes of spaceflight. That at least is the goal of companies like Virgin Galactic, which has allied with Scaled Composites to build SpaceShipTwo, a passenger spaceplane that will take tourists 70 miles above the Earth for short flights.Initially affordable only for the very rich, such a jaunt will set you back about $200,000 — that is, once Virgin Galactic actually gets their machine flying and ready. Though the business hoped to get off the ground years ago, they have constantly pushed back the date of their first flights. Virgin Galactic now hopes to be ready to carry passengers by the end of 2013.
But they had best hurry, before the kleptocrats and autocrats of the planetary governments and inter-governments decide to close that doorway to a more abundant and unlimited future.