Private space industry looks for liftoff

If the historic flight of Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne this week represented a giant leap for everyman's access to space, the next big milestone already looms on the horizon.

Falcon 1, an unmanned rocket built by a small company in El Segundo, Calif., is set later this year to carry an experimental satellite to orbit for the Defense Department - a historic vote of confidence in a privately financed rocket that hasn't even flown yet.

Like SpaceShipOne, the Falcon was developed using money from private investors and nary a federal dollar. If it's successful, the rocket would prove that it's possible to dramatically cut the cost of lifting objects into orbit - a cost that many say is the single largest economic barrier to building factories and labs in orbit, colonizing the moon, or sending humans to explore the solar system.

Together, SpaceShipOne and Falcon 1 make clear that space is no longer the exclusive domain of NASA or big-buck aerospace firms. These and other upstarts, in fact, may figure prominently in the future expansion of America's space industry, especially if the Bush administration proceeds with plans for private companies to play a significant role in its mission to send humans to the moon and, perhaps, to Mars.

The upstarts - many headed by visionary entrepreneurs who have left the Internet boom for the allure of space - are bringing fresh ideas. From inflatable hotels, labs, and office space in orbit to "space tugs" that can extend the operating life of critical communications satellites, these newcomers are "bending metal" on projects they hope will help turn private investment into a powerful engine for space exploration and development.

"I think we are at the dawn of a new era in commercial space exploration," says Elon Musk, who founded and heads Space Exploration Technologies, the company that developed Falcon 1 and is building a more powerful sibling.

Many of these companies are children of the Internet and computer booms of the 1990s. Part entrepreneurs and part visionaries, former high-tech executives who sold their businesses and looked for new challenges have found them in spaceflight. Mr. Musk, Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen (who underwrote Mr. Rutan's effort) all made fortunes working for or owning computer or Internet companies and are sinking that money into space projects.

These entrepreneurs represent latter-day Carnegies, who are pouring money into ventures less for immediate gain than because they feel the work needs to be done, says George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, a space- development advocacy group in Washington.

In other cases, executives start companies after methodically looking for a potentially profitable market no one else is tapping.

Orbital Recovery Corp., for example, is building space tugs that would dock with expensive communications satellites and provide the fuel, electricity, and guidance systems to keep them operating far longer than their original onboard support systems would have allowed.

"This is simply a business," says Philip Braden, who heads the British firm. "The fact that it's a space business makes it sound exotic. But we look at it as a lucrative opportunity."

Business case for space

For all its Wild West appearance, the alternative aerospace industry has some economic targets to shoot for, according to a pair of reports from the US Commerce Department's Office of Space Commercialization.

One obvious target is space tourism. Noting that people interested in extreme vacations think nothing of dropping thousands of dollars to climb Mt. Everest or visit the Titanic in submersibles, the report cites market studies suggesting that up to 70,000 people worldwide would be willing to ride into space for $50,000 a flight - the price for a license to climb Mt. Everest.

In a 1997 survey, 7.5 percent of Americans said they'd be ready to pony up $100,000 or more to spend two weeks vacationing aboard the space shuttle. The number grew as the posited cost of the stay fell.

Mr. Bezos reportedly is one entrepreneur trying to tap this market. His Seattle-based company Blue Origin is said to be working on rockets for the tourism market.

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Bigelow Aerospace is designing inflatable modules humans can inhabit in space. The goal is to cut the cost of building space stations or orbiting labs. The company, owned by Robert Bigelow, who also owns Budget Suites of America, is slated to launch a prototype late next year atop Musk's souped-up Falcon 5.

Beyond tourism, other opportunities exist for extending the private sector's reach into space, adds Rick Tumlinson, founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, based in Nyack, N.Y.

These include mining precious metals from the moon, building and operating biohazard labs there, or operating astronomical observatories.

Meanwhile, he continues, the approaches that allow space tugs to salvage communications satellites could be modified to nudge asteroids into positions where they can be exploited for resources.

Analysts acknowledge that some of these activities remain distant goals. Indeed, even the Commerce Department study warns that rosy projections can fail to appear. In the 1980s, it notes, some experts projected that commercial space industry beyond communications satellites and remote sensing would be worth $50 billion a year within a decade. The '90s came and went with that goal nowhere in sight.

"Space people can be overly optimistic," Mr. Tumlinson acknowledges.

A wary outlook

This time around, analysts are more cautious, noting that several pieces of the puzzle must fall into place if the alternative space industry is to move into the mainstream.

One boost could come from NASA as it implements recommendations from the Aldridge Commission, a panel President Bush established to lay out an organizational road map for returning to the moon by 2020 and perhaps sending humans to Mars later.

The recommendations, released last week, call on NASA to more aggressively court companies developing rockets and other key technologies through private means. The companies would provide NASA with access to low-earth orbit, and the agency and Congress were encouraged to award large cash prizes to companies achieving technical goals the agency would like to see reached on the road to fulfilling the president's vision for the US space program.

For its part, Congress is weighing legislation to provide clearer guidelines to the Federal Aviation Administration for certifying launch vehicles and insuring private companies that want to build rockets to carry humans into space.

A lack of clear regulations currently represents a barrier to investment, Tumlinson maintains.

"There are literally tens of millions of dollars waiting to be invested in these firms right now," he says. "Investors are waiting until they have a clear playing field on regulations."

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