In Business Watch This Space

Space(21/04/2011)

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.

Leash

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.

Squads

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.

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