By Kate Lunau - Thursday, November 3, 2011 - 8 Comments
How the wealthy are shooting for the stars—privately
On Aug. 24, an unmanned Russian cargo spaceship bound for the International Space Station (ISS) crashed in eastern Russia, sent down by engine failure in its Soyuz carrier rocket. Russia temporarily grounded all launches to the ISS to investigate, but the crash underlined a pressing problem: since the U.S. retired its aging fleet of space shuttles in July, any astronaut or cargo heading to the space station has no choice but to hitch a ride with Russia. For a ride on the Soyuz, NASA pays about $56 million per seat—and the cost will go up to $62.7 million in 2014.
It must be a blow to American pride. The U.S. doesn’t want to rely on Russian rockets forever, and other nations like China are pushing ahead with ambitious space programs. But NASA doesn’t plan on building more shuttles. The U.S. space agency is shifting its focus to deep space exploration, and intends to buy rides into low Earth orbit (where the space station is) from private companies instead.
Like a commercial airline, these companies will sell rides not only to NASA, but to academics, businesses, and the curious public, too. A handful of ultra-wealthy entrepreneurs are backing some of the most ambitious ventures in space travel. SpaceX was launched by Elon Musk, who co-founded PayPal and is CEO of Tesla Motors; Blue Origin comes from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos; and Virgin Galactic is an offshoot of Virgin Group, founded by Sir Richard Branson. New Mexico is completing a taxpayer-financed commercial space terminal, Spaceport America, with Virgin Galactic as its anchor tenant.
By Jonathon Gatehouse - Thursday, July 29, 2010 at 10:00 AM - 0 Comments
He’s selling electric cars and space shots while battling his ex and the press
Elon Musk is used to making headlines. In fact, he seems to relish them. In late May, the 39-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur stood alongside Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Toyota Motors CEO Akio Toyoda and inked a deal to purchase a mothballed California auto plant for Tesla, his electric sports car company.
Two weeks later, he was in Florida, watching a Falcon 9 rocket, made by another one of his firms, SpaceX, blast off on its maiden voyage to orbit, and a potentially lucrative future hauling freight and astronauts to the International Space Station. On June 29, he and his 24-year-old fiancée, British actress Talulah Riley, toothily rang the bell to open trading on the New York Stock Exchange, as Tesla became the first automobile maker to go public in the U.S. since Ford in 1956.
By Colby Cosh - Wednesday, December 9, 2009 at 6:26 AM - 6 Comments
I continue to be awestruck at Sir Richard Branson’s gift for hype. On Monday he rolled out Virgin Galactic’s “SpaceShipTwo”, dutifully described by Wired magazine as “the first commercial spacecraft” and “the first commercial spaceship”. This must be galling for the folks at the spaceflight research firm SpaceX. In July of this year, to little fanfare, they successfully put a Malaysian satellite into low earth orbit using a privately designed and built unmanned rocket, the Falcon 1. This is definitely commerce, and RazakSat is definitely up there in space, bleeping away in Malay. Surely everything else is Bransonian semantics?
SpaceShipTwo, despite the name, is an airplane–a very sophisticated and impressive airplane, designed to make brief suborbital hops after being carried aloft by another airplane. Branson’s hundreds of more-money-than-they-know-what-to-do-with customers are buying the aviation experience of a lifetime, one that nobody returns from unmoved. But it will be an aviation experience. “Space” is defined in custom, international law, and Virgin marketing literature as “high enough that airplanes mostly don’t work anymore”. To get there as an airplane passenger, by virtue of a few seconds of rocket boost tacked onto a conventional flight, seems a little like a technical cheat—the equivalent of trying to join the Mile High Club by oneself in the john.
Branson likes to crack wise about the old-fashionedness and inelegance of efforts to commercialize space by means of brute, old-fashioned multi-stage rocketry. In fact, the seventh American in “space” was a civilian badass named Joe Walker, who got there more or less by the method Branson is using. Like Walker, Branson’s passengers will experience “weightlessness” only for a few seconds at the top of their journey, for exactly the same physical reason that a bungee jumper experiences it at the apex of his rebound. Virgin Galactic continues to suggest that its research program will one day progress beyond flirtations with the Kármán line to earth orbit, where the real commercial, defence, and scientific applications are. But those plans are vague, and, perhaps tellingly, SpaceShipThree is no longer scheduled to be an orbital craft.
Meanwhile, SpaceX may be just days—hours, even—from testing its Falcon 9 launch platform, which is capable of carrying a manned capsule all the way into orbit and supporting International Space Station resupply missions. They’ve got their “spacecraft” built already, and will be testing its orbital capacities in the new year. Branson has a stirring line of blarney that obviously appeals to adventurers weaned on the sonorous, mercifully equation-free poetry of Carl Sagan. But we hardcore nerds know where the action really is.