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The race to space is on (again). But will the new frontier for private investment in Space deliver returns?
Paypal and Tesla billionaire Elon Musk may still be reeling from recent setbacks, but his leadership of the new space boom continues apace. And as our hunger for knowledge about Space intensifies, so more and more pioneers ready themselves to explore the opportunities it presents.
The newly erected first-stage booster stands 162 feet above a concrete landing pad on the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and Jack Northrop Avenue in Hawthorne, California.
If you happen to be out walking that way, you really can’t miss it, but from the path, you can’t quite reach out and touch it, either.
The booster made a historic landing in December 2015 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral, after helping to propel 11 satellites for communication company Orbcomm into orbit. Since then, SpaceX, whose full name is Space Exploration Technologies Corp, has landed five more first-stage rocket boosters — one on land and four on a floating drone ship at sea.
The landings have energized Space X chief executive Elon Musk’s vision for reusable rocket boosters, which can dramatically reduce launch costs. Much more than that, the 162-foot leviathan is a tangible - but somehow just out of reach - symbol of the new space boom.
Not since the flurry of space activity in the 1990s has there been so much excitement in the space race. Back in 2011, there were only 100 companies in the space industry. Now there are about 1,000, including 700 private businesses, according to the aptly-named Richard Rocket, co-founder and CEO of New Space Global, a Cape Canaveral, Florida-based firm that follows the global commercial space sector for investors.
Back in 2011, there were only 100 companies in the space industry. Now there are about 1,000, including 700 private businesses, according to the aptly-named Richard Rocket
Since 2000, the investment in space start-ups has totalled $13.3 billion, including a record $2.7 billion in 2015. Money is clearly flowing into the new space industry - though at a significantly slower rate than in more traditional technology companies.
According to Jeff Foust, editor in chief of the Washington DC based publication the Space Review, there are two main forces driving greater financial interest in space tourism and deep space exploration: “Advances in technology has reduced costs,” he says. “So it is easier to get smaller satellites into space - and you can launch rockets for much less too, which means more frequent launches.”
Space X has been described as a sort of the EasyJet of rocket launchers, both reliable and cheap. The other factor in the new space boom is the enthusiastic involvement of billionaires.
“Wealthy individuals’ interest in space has resulted in money being pumped into new initiatives,” says Foust. “This is completely unprecedented.”
Alongside Elon Musk, the billionaire behind PayPal, Tesla and now Space X, there is his Space nemesis, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who owns rocketry company Blue Origin. So far, Bezos has declined to say how much money he has poured into Blue Origin, apart from one off-hand remark to reporters: “Let’s just say it’s a lot,” he quipped.
Paul Allen, founder of Microsoft has funded Stratolaunch, the largest aeroplane in the world by wingspan, which will drop rockets from about 30,000 feet, moments before they blast into space. (This will send satellites into space more reliably, he says.) And in January 2015, Google invested one billion dollars in Space X. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which has been trying to get space tourism off the ground for more than ten years, is one of the few non-digital or software billionaires currently investing in the rocketry boom.
Musk himself has noticed the trend. “You had to have some kind of pre-boom to supply the capital to get the rocket boom going and that only happened with personal computers and the Internet,” he has said.
But are these billionaires serious, or is this just an extra impressive hobby for a bunch of seriously wealthy space dilettantes?
But are these billionaires serious, or is this just an extra impressive hobby for a bunch of seriously wealthy space dilettantes?
“I think they are very serious,” says Foust. “A lot of them have dreamed of this since they were children. Bezos has been investing in Blue Origin for 15 years, Space X has been going 14 years and Virgin Galactic for over a decade. All of them have suffered setbacks. In the case of Virgin Galactic, a test pilot died. It would be very easy for any of them to have already given up.”
As well as staying power, they have some suitably, mogul-sized goals. For Musk, for instance, re-useable rockets are just the start. His aim is to get people to Mars.
“Are we on a path to becoming a multi-planet species or not?” Musk has asked. “If we’re not, well, that’s not a very bright future. We’ll simply be hanging out on Earth until some eventual calamity claims us.”
Are we on a path to becoming a multi-planet species or not?
Even though Space X has yet to get a single person as far as low Earth orbit – they say they will carry their first astronauts in 2017 – Musk says he’s hard at work on a plan for a “Mars Colonial Transporter.” (It is rumoured that the X in Space X stands for Exodus).
Despite suffering a setback when one of their rockets exploded on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral recently, Musk’s enthusiasm seems undimmed.
Bezos remains just as starry-eyed. His re-useable New Shephard spacecraft has already launched to the outskirts of space. Depending how well testing goes, paying tourists, six at a time, might start taking short trips as soon as 2018.
But in fact Space tourism has already achieved lift off. On April 28, 2001, Denis Tito became the first fee-paying space tourist when he visited the international space station (ISS) for seven days.
He was followed in 2002 by South African computer millionaire Mark Shuttleworth. Next was Gregory Olson in 2005, whose company produced specialist, high sensitivity cameras.
Since then there have been more than eight citizen space flights on the Russian spaceship Soyuz. All were arranged by Tom Shelley, the English president of Washington-based company Space Adventures.
“These kind of adventures are growing in popularity,” he says.
The short five minute hop up to the edge of space and back again – experiencing overwhelming G force on the way up and weightlessness on the way down, will soon be the norm, says Shelley. By 2020, Shelley predicts “you will meet people at parties who have done it,” he says.
Edward Wright of another rival firm Citizens In Space is more bullish.
“In ten or 20 years it will cost the equivalent of a first class flight from the US to Australia.”
For Bezos space tourism is just a start, a necessary stepping-stone to develop expertise in new technology, just like the early days of airplanes or computer games. His ultimate goal is for us all to be able to live and work “off-planet”. With heavy industry conducted off-planet, earth will revert to a kind of enormous suburb, made up largely of universities and homes, he has suggested. He is understandably excited by the recent discovery of Proxima B, an earth-like world just 4.22 light years away that could support life.
Back on planet earth, the big investment opportunity right now is the burgeoning satellite industry. For instance, Google’s investment in Space X is designed to help Google achieve its aim of bringing satellite Internet to remote corners of the world.
But, as The New York Times has pointed out, “Google is hopping onto a crowded bandwagon.”
Virgin Group, along with Qualcomm, a maker of communications semiconductors, have invested in a constellation of 648 Internet connectivity satellites. Planet Labs, a maker of shoebox-size satellites that offer Earth imagery, has received $95 million in financing.
“Venture capitalists are investing in satellite companies,” says Foust.
“Many of the current new space companies are not going to be around in 10 to 20 years,” Fred Wilson from Aerojet Rocketdyne, who make rocket propulsion systems, has said.
Foust agrees, but points out “the difference today and, say, back in the 1990s, is that everything is much cheaper: new space companies’ business models do not require so much success as in the past,” he says.
Foust believes that over time successful companies will consolidate. “Figuring out who will be the winners is a challenge but that is what makes it so interesting to follow,” he says. But he draws the line at Musk and Bezos ever collaborating: “Those two egos won’t join forces anytime soon,” he says.
None of this would have happened without NASA. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, the agency has been focusing on deep exploration, sending probes to Mars.
At the same time, funding for the space agency has been slashed. Today, NASA appropriations make up less than 0.5 per cent of federal spending. As one wag has noted “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”
And so NASA has been working with private contractors such as Space X. In fact, NASA represents the biggest slice of the Space X’s business. Space X recently won a $2.6 billion contract to fly astronauts to the space station beginning in 2017. NASA has even backed Space X’s most far-out plans for the future: the plan to land on Mars.
“In exchange for Martian entry, descent and landing data from Space X,” said a spokeswoman recently, “NASA will offer technical support for the firm’s plan to attempt to land an un-crewed Dragon 2 spacecraft on Mars.”
Elon Musk’s vision may soon be within his reach.
2015 A year in space travel
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