08 June 2010

Entrepreneurs Push the Outer Limits

Update 9June10: Be sure to check out the Carnival of Space #157 at Out of the Cradle, via Brian Wang: "Over 100 links and 6 embedded videos."


Entrepreneurs want to be best, first, and biggest, and are willing to take risks to get there. The entrepreneurial mindset is world's away from the risk-averse attitude of bureaucrats, academics, and attorneys. The most difficult part of getting humans into space was creating an atmosphere that allowed entrepreneurs into the game. Thanks to the multiple booms of the 80s and 90s, a few high-flying entrepreneurs acquired enough wealth to help start developing their own space programs in the late 90s and the 00s.
"Commercial space is the only way forward. If we go with super-expensive government development, in the absence of some massive increase in the space budget, we will never do anything interesting in space. It's not a path forward. It's the only path forward." _SpaceX's Elon Musk, quoted in Discovery

The successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket into orbit last week once again pushed the private space race back into the spotlight. While the Falcon 9 is slated to begin carrying cargo to the International Space Station, it is also designed so that it could one day carry human passengers as well. With the Falcon 9 making it to orbit on the first try, it undoubtedly gave a boost to the private space industry.

There are several companies currently developing a wide range of space products that could one day fill in for what has so far been left to a few big nations. From the delivery of payloads to orbit and lunar landers, to space hotels and sub-orbital tourist rides, the private space race spans a wide range of opportunities. _Wired
One of the companies most eager to get into space and start making money in "the final frontier", is Bigelow Aerospace.
At the Bigelow Aerospace factory here, the full-size space station mockups sitting on the warehouse floor look somewhat like puffy white watermelons. The interiors offer a hint of what spacious living in space might look like.

“Every astronaut we have come in here just says, ‘Wow,’ ” Robert T. Bigelow, the company founder, told Kenneth Chang of The New York Times. “They can’t believe the size of this thing.”

Four years from now, the company plans for real modules to be launched and assembled into the solar system’s first private space station. Paying customers — primarily nations that do not have the money or expertise to build a space program from scratch — would arrive a year later.

In 2016, a second, larger station would follow. The two Bigelow stations would then be home to 36 people at a time — six times as many as currently live on the International Space Station.

If this business plan unfolds as it is written — the company has two fully inflated test modules in orbit already — Bigelow will be buying 15 to 20 rocket launchings in 2017 and in each year after...

...A habitat called Sundancer, with an inflated volume of about 6,400 cubic feet, would launch first. A separate rocket would then carry two Bigelow astronauts to take up residence in Sundancer as additional pieces — a second Sundancer, a larger habitat of about 11,700 cubic feet, and a central connecting node — are launched. The modules are to dock by themselves with the astronauts present to fix any glitches.

Once the stations are up, Bigelow still needs to demonstrate that it can juggle the logistics of supplying food, water and air, as well as fix the inevitable glitches that will arise. Mr. Bigelow said that he would hire people with the needed experience and skills, and that space stations were not all that different from hotels.

“I’ve had four decades of serving people, tens and tens and tens of thousands of people, all over the southwest part of the United States,” he said. “I have four decades of building all kinds of things. The principles are the same.”

As a private company, Bigelow can operate space stations much more efficiently than NASA and its governmental partners can operate the International Space Station, Mr. Bigelow said. _NYT

Other companies, that plan to take humans into suborbital space, include Virgin Galactic, XCOR, Armadillio Aerospace and Space Adventures. Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin should also be ready for suborbital spaceflights -- with manned suborbital flights as early as 2012.

And then there is the great-grandpappy of commercial space startups -- Orbital Sciences. Orbital Sciences is no longer small, and is positioned to ride the entrepreneurial wave much higher.
You may never have heard of Orbital Sciences, despite the fact its revenues topped $1.1 billion back in 2008. The company was founded in 1982 by David Thompson, Bruce Ferguson and Scott Webster, and has had many successes in space and missile technology since then.

It's the other company tapped by NASA to develop cargo-capable rockets to supply the ISS, and it's also responsible for the launch-abort escape rockets of the only surviving bit of the Constellation program, the Orion manned capsule. In March of 2010 Orbital bought General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems Satellite Division for $55 million, retaining the 325 employees and planning on using the tech to further the company's space science and engineering expertise.

Orbital's future is bright, and though some of its missions will be high-profile, like those supporting the ISS, other parts of its business (like its Missile Defense Agency test launches) may ensure it doesn't occupy the same sort of limelight that SpaceX or the other enterprises here will. _FastCompany

These entrepreneurs -- many of them self-made billionaires -- are looking beyond the initial toeholds they are digging out. They are looking for some very big payoffs, as a reward for being among the first private companies to offer space to the public.

And beyond that? The thing about congenital entrepreneurs is that they're never satisfied. They are always scheming, always looking for the next sky-wide opportunity. And the more they achieve, the more they want to achieve.

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