New Space

Woodside Hotels Magazine, Oct 2012

The latest “Great Race” has the titans of technology picking up where NASA ground to a halt. With mission control in the hands of those who made high-tech part of our every minute, is the final frontier the next dot com boom?

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One could quibble about when it happened, the exact date when the world changed, but few would dispute that when it comes to space, we have indeed entered a new era altogether. For fifty years, space flight was the preserve of governments and state agencies, but now, for the first time, it is the domain of private enterprise, individual entrepreneurs and the wild dogs of the free market.

This new era is known as the NewSpace era, a term coined in the late 90s when the private sector made its first inroads into the space industry. But it was earlier this year that things really took off – literally.

On May 22, Elon Musk, one of the founders of Paypal and Tesla Motors, a Silicon Valley-based electric car company, successfully launched the first commercial spacecraft in history. Falcon 9, an unmanned rocket built by Musk’s company, SpaceX  lifted off from Cape Canaveral the way Apollo and Shuttle missions had done so many times before.  John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, said of the launch carrying some 1,000 pounds of food, clothing and water to the International Space Station, “Every launch into space is a thrilling event, but this one is especially exciting because it represents the potential of a new era in American spaceflight.”

But Musk isn’t the only Silicon Valley space adventurist with his eye on the skies. Last year, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, ran tests on his own suborbital spacecraft, New Shepherd. And, meanwhile, Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, is busy working on the colossal Stratolaunch – a giant airplane with a wingspan of 380ft (longer than a football field) that can launch rockets into space. And then there are Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who have teamed up with the X Prize Foundation – a non-profit that creates competitions which incentivize innovation – to create the Google Lunar X Prize, worth $30 million in prize money, for which some 25 teams are presently competing from all around the world.

Intrepid ambition aside, what these endeavors have in common is money, the kind of sums only the valley’s billionaires and piggy-backing venture capitalists could cough up. The vision from these people who have created the technology that defines our present is a future, they believe, that is as much in their hands as it is out of this world. But can Silicon Valley manufacture another bubble that has as much sway outside of our orbit as it had within?

High-roller tourism and trucking

“Part of the paradigm shift is that private space flight is an attractive investment now,” says Sean Casey, one of the founders of the Silicon Valley Space Center (SVSC), a “business accelerator” group that connects investors to entrepreneurs. Last year at MIT Stanford, SVSC hosted a symposium that brought together businesses that are presently operating in four separate economic development zones in space – suborbital (50 miles above sea level), orbital (300 miles), geostationary (25,000 miles) and lunar (250,000 miles).

“It’s not that Elon Musk is spending his own money,” says Casey. “He has investors.” Musk says he put in $100 million of his own money to start SpaceX, raising a further $100 million from investors.  Because, as it turns out, space is a growing, multi-faceted market with an array of untapped resources and profits. Even before the historic launch of Falcon 9, SpaceX had signed contracts worth $4 billion for conducting future missions into space on behalf of private and government organizations.

One lucrative arena within this buffet of money making ventures is space tourism. Of the 500 tickets on sale for the Virgin Galactic suborbital flights, unofficial sources estimate that almost all have sold out, at $200,000 a shot – passengers are said to include Angelina Jolie, Stephen Hawking and Paris Hilton.

But equally popular is to send non-human payloads into microgravity environments, anything from small scientific experiments (space as a laboratory) to whole satellites. A Houston-based company called NanoRacks charges $25,000 to put a cubic payload of 10cm X 10cm on the International Space Station for 30 days.

“The killer products that will come out of microgravity are yet to be discovered,” says Casey. “But this industry is like the early 90s with the Internet. Back then, we were still building the infrastructure. No one knew what the applications would be. No one imagined that Facebook and Twitter would be so huge.”

The New NASA

For those who shed a tear when the Shuttle was retired, there is much to lift the spirits about the NewSpace era. The commercial sector stands to serve as a shot in the arm for NASA. Rather than shrink the agency, it frees it up. Following Space X’s triumphant launch, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden declared that it would “revolutionize the way we carry out space exploration, with the private sector taking over responsibility for transportation to the International Space Station – and this will free NASA up to focus on the really hard stuff like sending astronauts to an asteroid. And eventually onto Mars.”

In other words, private industry would, among other things, step into the “space taxi” role, and release NASA to do what it does best:  to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Ultimately, the NewSpace revolution won’t be technological but economic. Between private firms and NASA there is a symbiotic relationship that intertwines in all sorts of ways. On the one hand, NASA is often a customer, helping to support these businesses through commerce. It has a cargo delivery contract with Musk’s SpaceX worth $1.6 billion, for instance, whereby it pays SpaceX, as it did with its May 22 launch, to deliver payloads to the ISS. While on the other hand, it provides incentives for research, such as the Innovative Lunar Data Program, a NASA-funded initiative which offers up to $30 million in contracts for research – NASA as a buyer of ideas, technology and data.

The traffic, though, goes both ways: But the traffic goes both ways: NASA also acts as a partner for private industry, available for hire by NewSpace companies, who want to access the agency’s expertise. Moon Express is one such company, a private concern that’s competing for the Google Lunar X Prize.

“We’re turning the business equation upside down,” says Bob Richards, the CEO of Moon Express. “Rather than the government putting out a requirement that the private sector responds to, we’re defining our own business case and choosing the best that NASA has to offer that fits with our needs.”

While private enterprise is profit-driven and beholden to investors – and, potentially, the wild ambitions of a single billionaire – NASA’s objectives are lofty and concern with furthering knowledge and the national good. And yet the commercial sector has the advantage of being smaller, nimbler and more autonomous, where NASA can be a groaning government bureaucracy, subject to the whims of Congress.

The most telling distinction between the two cultures, however, is their appetite for risk.

“The way NASA works is to reduce the risk even by infinitesimally smaller increments,” says Alexandra Hall, the Senior Director of the Google Lunar X Prize. “If it’s going to cost them twice as much to reduce the risk by even a tiny amount, they can make that call, because they don’t have the same cost pressures. For the entrepreneurial side, their equation is different. I’m not suggesting that we’re going to see lots of deaths and things but I do think that the culture of Silicon Valley is that you learn by your mistakes, and great innovation can come from that.”

Only The Players Can Play

Hall is a prominent and high-profile voice for the NewSpace community. She helms the biggest X-Prize to date, and the X-Prize carries huge significance in this world. No single event paved the way for the NewSpace era more than Burt Rutan’s 2004 flight in SpaceShipOne, the first ever suborbital flight by a private individual, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize (an award specifically for space flight donated by the Ansari family – an American-Iranian who owns Telecom Technologies, Inc.).

The Google Lunar X Prize (GLXP) was announced three years later in 2007 and stands as the largest incentive prize of all time. It offers $20 million to the first team that can send an unmanned flight to the moon, land a robot, drive it 500 yards, and send video and data back to the Earth. There’s another $10 million for coming in second and achieving other mission objectives.

As expected, the X-Prize has generated tremendous excitement. Anticipating a stampede, NASA even issued guidelines in May to protect “heritage sites” on the moon from the impending cavalry of landers and robot buggies (specifically the landing sites for the Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 missions).

“We’ve got teams from all over the world,” she says. “And some of these countries, like Malaysia, have no regulatory structure for space exploration at all. So they’re really at the cutting edge. In America it’s like pushing an open door, but these guys have to develop the infrastructure for being a private or commercial space entity from scratch. And that was always one of the main goals of the prize – it’s not just about landing on the moon, it’s about creating this sea change in the space economy.”

Newt Gingrich became a laughing stock when he promised moon bases if he were elected President. But on the GLXP website, a (somewhat cheesy) video has the clear and rousing message – let’s build bases on the moon, mine it for silicon, build giant solar panels in space, and solve our energy crisis on earth: the moon as our savior, our very own lifebuoy. “It’s not fantasy,” says Hall. “NASA has people looking at in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), which describes the proposed use of resources found or manufactured on other astronomical objects (the Moon, Mars, Asteroids, etc.) to further the goals of a space mission. There are conferences about it, mining companies are looking at rover designs, drilling designs. You see the phrase “from dust to thrust” a lot: How can we use the moon’s resources and use it to propel rockets to send stuff back to earth? Because we’re going to reach a population where we outrun the resources of Earth.”

This is what ultimately drives the space community – the conviction that mankind will be a multi-planet, inter-stellar species. Sean Casey believes it’s inevitable.

“Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa, and now we’re going to migrate out of this planet,” he says. “It’s part of who we are. In fact, we’re already multi-planet. We’ve sent rovers to Mars!”

So when will moon-mining become a reality? He won’t say. But it’s telling that he quotes perhaps Silicon Valley’s most famous son in the process.

“Predictions about the future are always wrong,” he says. “But when it comes to space, it’s worth remembering what Bill Gates (one of hi-tech’s greatest alum, whose hand in making Silicon Valley a household name for internet innovation is indisputable) said: ‘we tend to overestimate the changes that will occur in the next two years, and underestimate the changes that will occur in the next ten.’” To bet on this assertion, given its author’s nose for delivering the future, could mean that Silicon Valley’s definition of “Enterprise” isn’t a starship, but the exact same form of mercantilism as it started and mastered on Earth.