In Business Watch This Space


I once spent a memorable morning at a space convention in Las Vegas. It was a gathering of enthusiasts, similar in zeal to railway engine spotters or cyclists.

NewSpace is organised every year by the Space Frontier Foundation, with the aim of "transforming the conception of space as the exclusive domain of government and government affiliated organizations into a widely accessible frontier ripe with opportunity". Using private enterprise of course.

Federation backers think that space has been spoiled by too much government involvement.

Most of the conferees were convinced that further space discovery was doomed unless control of space was wrested from national interests and given over to private enterprise.

Land rights to the surface of the Moon (and maybe underneath the surface) would unleash a torrent of creativity: in rocket building, adventure and purpose.

They argued that extending property rights to the moon would have an effect similar to the granting of land rights to adventurers in the Mid West of the USA in the 19th century.

It would create a marketplace in Moon land; new rocketry would be priced to take advantage of the opportunities on the Moon.

The invisible hand of free market capitalism would replace the visible hand of NASA and other national space agencies.


Much space equipment had been developed and made by corporations working on the time-honoured cost-plus basis, where companies doing untried things for the government were rewarded for the work they did and then given an agreed margin to cover their profits: no incentive to make things more cheaply or efficiently.

Space travel (and maybe exploration) could be revolutionised by taking space off the public funding leash. That was the argument I heard all over the NewSpace convention.

Well, 10 years later, the American space effort is undergoing great big change, forced on NASA partly by the need to cut costs in the face of the huge American budget deficit.

NASA and the traditional contractors it uses to build its rockets are facing big reductions in spending. Great big job losses are looming at NASA and its corporate contractors.

Later this year, the last of the current American shuttle vehicles will return to earth from its final mission.

From then on the Americans will rely on Russian Soyuz rockers to put up their astronauts to the International Space Station.

NASA is now turning to private enterprise to keep its missions going. It has always used corporate contractors to build its rockets and machines, following thousands of pages of NASA specifications.

But NASA is now stepping back from mandating every aspect of the mission, in favour of entering partnerships with companies to get similar things accomplished. Maybe cheaper, maybe better, still - everyone says - with safety at the core of the operation.

In the future, NASA astronauts will travel in private enterprise spacecraft, such as the one being built by the Paypal billionaire Elon Musk and his team at Spacex in Greater Los Angeles.

A recent start-up company with a NASA contract is quite an achievement, but many of the things that sounded like dreams when Elon Musk told me about them only five years ago are now being realised.

Meanwhile in the unlikely dusty setting of the Mojave Desert in southern California, I encountered a little clutch of private space companies with big ambitions, demonstrating there are indeed new ways of thinking about at least some forms of space travel.


The boldly named Mojave Air and Spaceport looks like just a tiny small town airport until you notice the striking space industry companies clustering round it.

One of them is the weirdly named Scaled Composites, founded by Burt Rutan in 1982.

It is the company whose SpaceShipOne won the $10million Ansari X Prize for the first reusable spacecraft to journey 100 kilometres out from earth twice in ten days in 2004.

It launched from the Mojave Spaceport. Now Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic company is planning to send squads of private astronauts up for brief flights in space at a fare of $200,000. They will travel on Scaled Composite's new craft SpaceshipTwo.

Another company in the Mojave cluster is Xcor. It too has plans for brief fare-paying trips into near space, four or five times a day on its Falcon craft.

Xcor has only about 20 employees. But it is building much of the craft and the engines in its Mojave plant, often using new composite materials (which also provide the "Composites" part of the Scaled Composites name).

Superstrong carbon fibre and rapid prototyping techniques liberate companies from the expensive production facilities needed to shape metals.

New materials and new ways of manufacturing are liberating space travel - so they say in Mojave - just like private enterprise does.

Previous Programmes

Watch Your Language - Peter Day joins a group of enthusiasts determined to improve the language of business.

Keep it Local - As pubs struggle to survive, Peter Day travels through villages in Yorkshire and Cumbria to talk to local activists.

Space - Peter Day asks what happens next on the USA's journey into space.

German Pencils - Peter Day asks Faber-Castell and Staedtler how they both stay sharp ...

Building BRICS - Peter Day finds out about the BRICS - Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and China

Over A Barrel - Peter Day contemplates the turmoil in the Middle East and fears it will affect the price of oil

Reconstructing Capitalism - Peter Day hears all about the challenges to the way capitalism works.

All at Sea - Peter Day hears all about sea transport.

China Dispossessed - Peter Day hears about some of the problems caused by China's rush for prosperity.

Back on the Road - Alan Mulally tells Peter Day how he changed the way Ford works and how it is now back in the business of selling cars.

Asia Bling! - Peter Day ponders how the rise of the Asian comsumer will change business.

Euro on the Rocks - Peter Day asks what is the future for the Euro?

Bitter Pills - Peter Day looks at changing face of drug development.

Operation Robot - would you allow a robot to operate on you? Peter Day looks at robot-assisted surgery.

Growing Pains - Peter Day asks, what is the main component of growth?

After the Crunch - Government funding and regional development: the view from Newcastle.

Chips off the Old Block - Computing in the UK, past, present and future.

Hidden Depths - Graham Hawkes, DeepFlight and exploring the oceans.

Sociability - How social technology makes new business models possible.

Are CEOs Up to the Job? - Two thirds aren't according to Xinfu's Steve Tappin. Peter Day investigates.

In at the Start - Saeed Amidi and Silicon Valley

Power Play - Is the 'smart grid' the start of something big?

Now Wash Your Hands Please - How a simple idea can transform lives in the developing world

Coming Soon - What can the experience of previous financial crises tell us about the current one?

Ticking Over - Can the Isle of Man rejuvenate the business of watchmaking?

Not Just Silicon - what can Silicon Valley teach us about innovation?

Press under Pressure - what lies ahead for the world of newspaper publishing?

Remembering CK Prahalad - in a world of change and multiple opportunities, how does a company keep up?

Rwanda Rising - building a clean safe state where business can flourish.

Life Cycles - building businesses around the idea of new kinds of bikes.

Who Sets Our Standards - the business and social benefits of standardisation.

Ready to wear - the ethical issues of the international clothing industry.

Doing It Wrong - what's wrong with the way business works?

New Age - the business of aging.

Project Alcatraz - rehabilitating offenders in Venezuela.

Selling Salvation - Peter Drucker and the Salvation Army.

Let Me Entertain You - office parties and away days.

Brazil's Sugar Rush - Brazil.

Small Wonder - microfinance.

Unlimited Company - organizational models.

Credit Crunch - cash and credit.

Student Startups - student entrepreneurs.

Media Mayhem - changes in the newspaper industry.

Squeaky Clean - branding.

Battery Power - Bolivia.

Women's Work - women in the city.

Hell For Leather - John Timpson and Timpson's Shoes.

Learning Curve - organisational culture.

Let's Start a Bank - banking.

Goodbye to Intel - Craig Barrett and Intel.

Location Location - So?

Iceland feels the Heat - the credit crunch in Iceland.

The Cisco Kid - Mike Lynch and John Chambers.

Grand Design - business schools.

Power Drive - the car industry.

All New - innovation.

Europe on the edge - What is this thing called "Europe"?

For more programmes visit the In Business programme archive.

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