26 January 2012

The Rocket Men of Private Space: The Future, Finally?

Rocket Men and Futurists

Ever since Albert Gore Jr. took control of NASA funding in the 1990s, the US space agency has been on the decline, in terms of human exploration of space. Mr. Gore helped shift the emphasis of NASA funding over to climate research, and paybacks to powerful campaign backers -- shunting funds away from the type of programs that space enthusiasts wanted to see.

With the coming of President Obama, NASA is really and truly passing the baton of manned space travel and exploration to private entities -- and none too soon! Below are excerpts from a Reason Magazine article profiling the "Rocket Men," the men who are opening the new frontier of private space:
The Daredevil: Elon Musk

Musk, a Stanford grad school dropout who was born in South Africa, made his fortune—estimated at $670 million—as one of the founders of the online payment site PayPal. Then he founded Tesla Motors, where he led development of an all-electric sports car.

After the space shuttles were retired, NASA was forced to start paying Russians to ferry Americans and their gear back and forth to the International Space Station, at about $63 million per seat. Musk says SpaceX can do it for one-third the price. The added risk of throwing humans—or as Musk refers to them, “biological cargo”—doesn’t seem to worry him.

The Mogul: Richard Branson

Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson isn’t a rocket scientist, but he knows a good publicity stunt when he sees it. The Ansari X Prize, which offered $10 million in private money for the first nongovernmental organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft twice in a two-week period, brought a burst of public attention to the commercial space race in 2004. Branson quickly snapped up the rights to the winning vehicle, SpaceShipOne, and the team that went with it, including famous aviation whiz Burt Rutan.

Since then Virgin has been working on SpaceShipTwo, which would carry two pilots and six passengers a few miles above the Karman line (the generally accepted threshold 62 miles up that separates Earth’s atmosphere from outer space) to check out the view and enjoy a brief period of weightlessness. Charging $200,000 per person (with a $20,000 deposit, please) Virgin Galactic already has 450 people signed up to fly as soon as the technology is ready and the regulatory hurdles have been cleared....

In August, NASA announced that it would be purchasing a full suborbital flight from Virgin, with an option for two more, to carry research payloads as part of the Flight Opportunities Program, a government initiative designed to “foster the development of the commercial reusable suborbital transportation industry.” The price for those three flights is a bargain at $4.5 million, about 1 percent of the cost of a single (orbital, to be fair) shuttle mission. Virgin was just one of seven companies to cut similar deals with NASA, but as is his wont, Branson grabbed the headlines.

The Dark Horse: Jeff Greason

“The technology that we’re missing is capitalism,”... at an April TEDx conference in San Jose. “The same thing that makes things work in every other arena of modern life.”

...Insiders see XCOR as an underrated rival to flashy players like Branson and Musk. XCOR has taken a gradualist approach, flying a succession of small but ever-larger rockets, including the aptly named EZ-Rocket. The current Lynx model is a two-seater that allows horizontal takeoff and landing but only goes up 38 miles, leaving the goal of outer space for the next generation rocket. But that distinction may not matter if Greason becomes the first entrepreneur to fly a paying customer on a rocket he built himself. At $95,000 for the Lynx’s single passenger seat, this small company is also offering the cheapest ticket on the market.

The Prize Giver: Peter Diamandis

Peter Diamandis is the chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, the nonprofit organization that dreamed up the Ansari X Prize—$10 million for a reusable suborbital launch vehicle—and is now offering prizes for everything from better oil spill management technology to rapid sequencing of human genomes. Richard Branson snagged the first winner, SpaceShipOne, to form the basis of Virgin Galactic’s program. But just as important, from Diamandis’ perspective, were the 25 losers. Collectively, the teams spent more than $100 million in pursuit of the prize. And that was precisely the idea.

The Hotelier: Robert Bigelow

Robert Bigelow knows hotels. He owns the Budget Suites of America extended-stay hotel chain here on Earth. But after a long rocket ride, when you need a place to crash—just figuratively, of course—Bigelow is your man. His Las Vegas company, Bigelow Aerospace, has launched two experimental orbiting modules, Genesis I and Genesis II, into space since its founding in 1996. Bigelow already has spent well over $200 million of his own money and says he’s ready to drop another $300 million on his quest to be the final frontier’s first hotelier and commercial real estate baron....

Bigelow isn’t just another space entrepreneur, he is also a client. Cheap, safe rockets are a crucial part of any plan to build while aloft. It’s big and empty up there, for the most part, so materials have to come from Earth. Bigelow sent up his test modules on Russian Dnepr rockets but has made no secret of his desire to use rockets from an American company for crew and cargo as soon as they become available.

The Rocketeer: John Carmack

The mascot of John D. Carmack’s rocket company is a cartoon armadillo wearing goggles and a scarf. It’s an oddly warm and fuzzy choice for such a nerdy founder. Armadillo Aerospace is the part-time venture of the lead programmer of Doom, Quake, and other 3D graphics-intensive video game megahits.

It’s also the leanest of the companies described here. Before he started Armadillo Aerospace, Carmack had very little experience in building spaceships, but his company went on to scoop up a couple of prizes that NASA was offering for building lunar landers while simultaneously working on suborbital (and eventually orbital) rockets. Armadillo’s strategy is physically different from those of most of its competitors, featuring a rapidly evolving form that adhered to Carmack’s credo to try out lots of options and abandon failures quickly—pretty much the opposite of NASA’s modus operandi. _Read the full article at Reason Rocket Men
Robert Zubrin: How Much Is An Astronaut's Life Worth?

There are a lot of valuable resources and real estate outside the Earth's atmosphere. The first human $trillionaire is fairly likely to earn his first $trillion via off-planet enterprises. Perhaps that is what attracts so many billionaires to space ventures.

Whatever US President Obama's reasons for opening part of the NASA budget to private space companies, the move is likely to spur a great deal of momentum toward a more economical and sustainable approach to space launch, space travel, space exploration and exploitation, and eventually space colonies. If only he would begin to shunt all of the NASA climate hysteria research funds to more productive private sector use!

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