Rocket Men

Meet the 21st-century pioneers who want to take you into space

(Page 2 of 4)

In August, NASA announced that it would be purchasing a full suborbital flight from Virgin, with an option for two more, to carry research payloads as part of the Flight Opportunities Program, a government initiative designed to “foster the development of the commercial reusable suborbital transportation industry.” The price for those three flights is a bargain at $4.5 million, about 1 percent of the cost of a single (orbital, to be fair) shuttle mission. Virgin was just one of seven companies to cut similar deals with NASA, but as is his wont, Branson grabbed the headlines.

In October the serial entrepreneur was on hand to open Spaceport America, the mostly taxpayer-funded New Mexico spaceport that Virgin Galactic now calls home. At a press conference Branson was characteristically optimistic, saying, “We’re ticking the final boxes on the way to space.”

The Dark Horse: Jeff Greason

XCOR founder Jeff Greason is onstage, flicking through a PowerPoint presentation and looking as slick as a mustachioed rocket engineer in a sports coat can, when suddenly he chokes up. Greason has just gotten to the part of his spiel where he tells the story about a conversation with his son. “Daddy,” the kid asks, “is it really true that they used to fly to the moon when you were a boy?” (Quick reference guide for those born after 1972: It is.) 

But Greason isn’t powered by nostalgia for the days of Apollo. Quite the opposite: He is a creature of the new space industry. He left a job at Intel to get into rocketry and thence into business for himself.

“The technology that we’re missing is capitalism,” Greason says later during the same presentation, given at an April TEDx conference in San Jose. “The same thing that makes things work in every other arena of modern life.”

In an interview with Senior Editor Brian Doherty, Greason expanded on that theme: “I’m confident we can develop a profitable market in suborbital spaceflight without the government’s beneficial influences—of course we have to continue to ensure they don’t become a regulatory obstacle, and right now they’re not.” (Read more about their conversation in “Space on Earth” on page 60.)

Insiders see XCOR as an underrated rival to flashy players like Branson and Musk. XCOR has taken a gradualist approach, flying a succession of small but ever-larger rockets, including the aptly named EZ-Rocket. The current Lynx model is a two-seater that allows horizontal takeoff and landing but only goes up 38 miles, leaving the goal of outer space for the next generation rocket. But that distinction may not matter if Greason becomes the first entrepreneur to fly a paying customer on a rocket he built himself. At $95,000 for the Lynx’s single passenger seat, this small company is also offering the cheapest ticket on the market.

The Prize Giver: Peter Diamandis

Peter Diamandis is the chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, the nonprofit organization that dreamed up the Ansari X Prize—$10 million for a reusable suborbital launch vehicle—and is now offering prizes for everything from better oil spill management technology to rapid sequencing of human genomes. Richard Branson snagged the first winner, SpaceShipOne, to form the basis of Virgin Galactic’s program. But just as important, from Diamandis’ perspective, were the 25 losers. Collectively, the teams spent more than $100 million in pursuit of the prize. And that was precisely the idea. 

Diamandis says he hatched his plan while reading about the early days of commercial aviation, particularly a prize offered in 1919 by the New York–based Frenchman Raymond Orteig for the first nonstop flight to Paris from the Big Apple. Diamandis told reason.tv in April 2010 that the $25,000 Orteig Prize “was ultimately what motivated Lindbergh to cross the Atlantic in 1927, and it’s what ultimately motivated me to create the X Prize.” His hope was not only to draw talented technicians into the ring—mission accomplished—but also to gin up customers for a new industry. The 18-month period around the date that Lindbergh flew saw an increase in air passengers from 6,000 to 180,000. “A 30-fold increase in the amount of passenger travel because of this dramatic demonstration of Lindbergh, this young aeronaut!” Diamandis enthuses.

Diamandis is also the chairman of Singularity University, which aims to “understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies to address humanity’s challenges”; the CEO of Zero Gravity Corporation, which lets the public experience weightlessness during parabolic flight; and a founder of Space Adventures, which books flights for tourists to the International Space Station. 

The Passenger: Charles Simonyi

Charles Simonyi should be famous for his role as the primary developer of Microsoft Word and Excel. Or maybe for dating Martha Stewart. But if you know his name at all, you likely know him as the private citizen who bought himself a ride to the International Space Station. Twice. 

Both times Simonyi paid Space Adventures to set up the jaunt. Simonyi entered space on a Russian Soyuz rocket—the only ride a private buyer can legally hitch for the moment, although that’s likely to change soon. The billionaire paid $25 million for the first flight in 2007, taking off from the same launch pad where cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin kicked the space race into high gear a half-century ago. The price was undisclosed but higher his second time around in 2009. The New York Times quoted Simonyi rationalizing his expenditure like a pro: “The price is going up,” he said. “This has to be put into perspective, because other means of getting to space are even more expensive, so this one is actually quite cost effective at the current state of technology.” 

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • poetry||

    fist again

    i'm awesome at this

  • Jordan Elliot||

    "Lots of kids go through an astronaut phase..."

    "But as luck would have it, writes Managing Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward, there are quite a few men who would be more than happy to help."

    In Space, no one can hear you scream... -NAMBLA 2012

  • anon||

    I really miss playing Silent Death. Such a fun game.

  • poetry||

    i really miss banging your mom

  • anon||

    Shut up, rather.

  • China||

    I'm afraid the vast majority of new and exciting manned space missions will be coming from us in the future.

    Enjoy your wars and your tax cuts. Afghanistan alone could fund an entire new shuttle program for you.

  • NeoCONNED||

    But we want it all you stupid Chinks! AND WE WILL HAVE IT, one American's destroyed savings at a time!!!! BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAH, HAHAHAHAHA, HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

    We will build pyramids on Mars as we nuke the ones in Egypt. USA!!!!!! USA!!!!!!

  • o3||

    do u publish such visionary thoughts in some newsletter?

  • Kristol Rove||

    Yes, we do.

  • NotSure||

    The fact that governments are bankrupt is actually good for space, it will mean there will be less government ships and more private ones buzzing about in the final frontier.

  • anon||

    Until the first act of "Space Terrorism."

  • Jordan Elliot||

    Yep.

  • o3||

    or the first spectacular explosion

  • NotSure||

    Didn't the first spectacular explosion already happen.

  • Trespassers W||

    And the second?

  • o3||

    not w civil liability involved

  • annonymous commenter some guy||

    And that was just in the US. Did we ever get a body count out of the Soviet space program?

  • Britt||

    One of the too good to check stories from the Cold War tells of panicked Russian voices coming in on a ham radio, with the signal fading out as the source moved farther and farther from Earth orbit, falling toward the sun.

  • ||

    I've often wondered if it wasn't for NASA's buracracy and the sole determiner of what can or can't go into space, the private sector may have gotten further into space earlier.

  • ||

    China's up to what, 1962? And private space will blow them away once things get moving. On the flip side, they'll be able to afford to buy rides from American companies.

  • k2000k||

    Not likely your gonna be old before your rich. Now get back to the sweatshop we need a 1,000,000 more lead painted spongebob dolls for walmart.

  • curi||

    with or without Tang

    Long space flights are going to mighty lonely without a little 'tang.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    Ruining childhood stories, encore! Tang was invented by Kraft Foods a year before NASA was founded. Enough of that myth.

  • Trespassers W||

    Nice spaceship. Looks like some kind of bug.

  • anon||

    The pic changed from a cock & balls to a straight up dong.

  • ||

    "The surly bonds of Earth?" Yes, I find gravity quite churlish, too.

  • poetry||

    AS OVERWROUGHT AS POSSIBLE

  • ||

    Great. Now have that Elton John song in my head.

  • klepy||

    Tiny Dancer?

  • Colonel_Angus||

    The first pic was cooler. "Johnson! How fast is it traveling?"

  • Loki||

    Kind of forgot about Jeff Bezos. He's got a space company called Blue Orgins. Although they tend to be more secretive than Spacex or many of the others mentioned in the article.

    Whether commercial space truly kicks off is going to depend a lot on Bigelow's success or failure IMO. There needs to be someplace to go in space, and currently the only destination available is the ISS. Also, a private space station could kick start a lot of space research in addition to tourism.

    The $97 million dollars quoted in the article for 2 astronauts to travel to a Bigelow space station is chump change compared to the cost of going to the ISS, and I'm sure there will also be far less red tape and cost to fly a scientific payload to his station compared to NASA's as well.

  • JEP||

    It's my personal theory that real private space travel isn't going to occur based on tourism.

    It'll occur because we've identified an asteroid that has uranium or other useful minerals on it.

    Oil companies and the like already have a lot of experience establishing self sufficient based in extremely remote areas, i.e. oil drilling platforms.

  • annonymous commenter some guy||

    I don't see how we could hop straight to an asteroid. It's a much harder problem than even going to the Moon. We need to establish some sort of commercial presense in near Earth orbit and expand from there.

    Of course, the true holy grail would a space elevator. Make one of these and you change the economics drastically.

  • SFC B||

    Didn't I see a movie about this?

  • JEP||

    Did I just steal someone's IP?

  • ||

    Sorry but this is a retarded idea.

    There is absolutely no reason to go to SPACE for MINERALS. Especially minerals we have in relative abundance on Earth.

    The real boom in private space travel will occur because people just want to get as far away from everyone else as they possibly can.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    One--you read right, one--KNOWN asteroid has enough platinum in it to make platinum nearly worthless, it would be so common. The minerals of space, even factoring in production costs, will be entirely cost effective.

  • ||

    The real secret is space industry. One you set up the supply chain and infrastructure, you have finally that 'super abundance' of the future world.

  • FTFY||

    It'll occur because we've identified an asteroid that has uranium or other useful minerals on it when we need more prison space for dopers.

  • JEP||

    The Moon is a Harsh Mistress...here we come!

  • np||

    woohoo! we've got no nukes or rockets but all we have to do is fling some big rocks at you!

  • ||

    Crematoria

  • ||

    What can you do with bong smoke in zero-g? Trippy!

  • KW6||

    And before the first flight of a private passenger on a private spacecraft, some TSA goon will first have to fondle his "launch hardware".

    It would be nice if going to space would let us leave tyranny behind.

    http://www.bigheadpress.com/eft?page=1

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    I don't imagine the UN will be able to control Mars colonies, and individual nations certainly won't, so I'd say there's a good chance is the right people (read: libertarians) frame the governments.

  • ||

    Branson's project has had more than setbacks: it killed 3 Scaled Composites workers and injured three other ones when a tank exploded. Or did you just forget that?

  • hey now||

    Once again no love for Dave W. Thompson, a guy who's been doing it for awhile now. And I wish that commercial space could do without NASA, but apart from things like comms birds, that's just not the case yet.

  • ||

    I LOVE Dana Rohrabacher.

    I think I'm falling in love with Katherine Mangu-Ward.

  • amagikid||

    Watch Herman Cain deliver the Tea Party State of the Union at www.TeaPartyExpress.org ! The live stream starts on Tuesday, January 24th at 10:30 EST/7:30 PST.

  • ||

    I've always had a hunch about Mars being a resource-Nirvana. See, it had all the geologic and hydrothermal processes and chemistry like on Earth. For billions of years. Then when the heat died so did those processes, the planet is in a way pretty much frozen in time.

    But no plate tectonics recycled everything all the time (geologically speaking). That's why the volcanoes and valleys got so big on that rock, nothing ever erased the chalkboard there so-to-speak.

    Mons Olympus is probably riddled with massive sulfide after massive sulfide piled miles into the sky. Think of the potential seams of gold on that ball in them thar hills.

    In 2049 there will be 49'ers again. And chances are like before many will be named Chang and Wang and Gomez in addition to Smiths and Sutters. The wagon will be different, as will be the trail, but it will still be a shitty months-long grind. But the gold will be calling. Like Twain said, history doesn't repeat but it sure will rhyme.

  • LK||

    "For decades space enthusiasts and libertarian dreamers have imagined a future where robust competition replaces top-down bureaucracy in the provision of extra-atmospheric travel."

    I fail to see how Elon Musk / SpaceX represents anything other than business as usual. Replace Boeing / Lockheed / ATK with SpaceX, you're still left with a company dependent on government contracts to transport government employees to a government facility (International Space Station) with no commercial value or customers other than the taxpayer.

  • ||

    Lockheed and Boeing have used the cost-plus model. Before their United Launch Alliance - the only 'private' orbital service offered in the US - the space program was outright socialized. The Space Shuttle was designed for maximum pork.

    SpaceX is a revolution because it's production model lowers costs and frees up human capital resources. That automatically brings companies like Lockheed and Boeing into competition mode - having to do what they've done, but at a private market friendly cost model. Pair this development with those companies like Bigelow aerospace, and you'll see some significant changes.

  • ||

    there is no safety this side
    of the grave, but there _is_
    enough water ice in the moon's
    polar regions to make it much
    easier for a colony to be self-
    supporting.

  • EBL||

    The Man Who Sold the Moon. I much prefer the libertarian space way than the big bloated NASA way.

  • EBL||

    Space exploration will take off when it becomes profitable...

  • ralph||

    Thanks for the article. For info on people using voluntary Libertarian tools on similar and other issues, please see http://​www.Libertarian-Internation​al.org , the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization

  • ralph||

    Thanks for the article. For info on people using voluntary Libertarian tools on similar and other issues, please see http://​www.Libertarian-Internation​al.org , the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization

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