A private space industry is born

Human spaceflight today may be where the satellite business was early on: Governments initially handled everything, but eventually companies took over the business.

Allen Fredrickson/Reuters
Richard Branson: a new breed of space entrepreneur.

Growing up on the Isle of Man, in the Irish Sea, Chris Stott was a space buff from the start. "There isn't a time I can remember when I wasn't fascinated by space," he says.

Little wonder then that he waxes enthusiastic about humanity's potential as a spacefaring species, especially when the full power of private investment finally emerges. Mr. Stott is chairman of ManSat, a space-commerce consulting group on the island off Britain and Ireland. But his ties to human space exploration also are personal. His wife is NASA astronaut Nichole Stott, currently the flight engineer on the International Space Station.

He acknowledges that governments play a key role in space as the tip of the spear, handling cutting-edge exploration. But in the end, he says, the full potential for space travel will only be realized when the clout of the markets is harnessed. "You've got this massive, 800-pound gorilla in the room twinkling its little fingers and saying, 'Hello.' "

The gorilla already has a toe in the door. It began with privately funded tourist trips to Russia's old space station, Mir, as well as to the ISS. When aircraft designer Burt Rutan captured the X Prize in 2004 for the first privately funded trip to the doorstep of space, his achievement triggered interest – and money – for new craft capable of supporting the effort by Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic company to build a hotel and launch complex for suborbital trips in southern New Mexico.

Entrepreneurs such as former Internet gurus Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are investing their substantial personal fortunes in building a new generation of rockets to shrink launch costs. Both want to put humans into space. "The original X Prize was all about making the technical case" for human spaceflight outside the government domain, Stott says. The current Lunar X Prize, designed to stimulate private investment in going to the moon, "is all about making the business case."

He likens human spaceflight today to the early days of communications satellites. Initially, they were built under the aegis of multigovernment groups like Intellsat. But once commerce became involved, the satellite industry took off, mushrooming into a $260 billion business. The Earth's "like a giant apple," Stott says. "Every day 6-1/2 billion people take a bite out of it" and pollute what's left. In trying to meet the challenges of living sustainably, "people are looking in front of themselves. They forget to look up." •

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