Rocket Men

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

(Page 3 of 4)

In addition to brokering deals with the Russians to get civilians off the launch pad, Space Adventures offers bookings on flights that take passengers up to enjoy a brief spell of zero gravity. Its most famous passenger for that service was the otherwise extremely earthbound theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. The company, based in Vienna, Virginia, boasts that its clients collectively have traveled more than 36 million miles and spent almost three months in space. 

The Hotelier: Robert Bigelow

Robert Bigelow knows hotels. He owns the Budget Suites of America extended-stay hotel chain here on Earth. But after a long rocket ride, when you need a place to crash—just figuratively, of course—Bigelow is your man. His Las Vegas company, Bigelow Aerospace, has launched two experimental orbiting modules, Genesis I and Genesis II, into space since its founding in 1996. Bigelow already has spent well over $200 million of his own money and says he’s ready to drop another $300 million on his quest to be the final frontier’s first hotelier and commercial real estate baron.

Like everyone else in the private space industry, Bigelow says prices will come down when business picks up. Right now he is pricing flights at $28.8 million per person for a month-long hotel stay, travel included. It’s no coincidence that his price is just a smidge cheaper than Space Adventures’ rumored going rate. Bigelow is explicit that he’s taking the Budget Suites concept to new heights: cheap digs where you can hang out as long as you like and take care of your own business, whatever that may be. Of course, cheap is a relative term: Putting up two astronauts for three months in one of Bigelow’s inflatable space habitats will run you $97.5 million, and that’s on the lower end of his extensive menu of options. Bigelow hopes some of the more extravagant leases will appeal to the national governments of wealthy but nonspacefaring nations as well as research institutions and private citizens.

Bigelow isn’t just another space entrepreneur, he is also a client. Cheap, safe rockets are a crucial part of any plan to build while aloft. It’s big and empty up there, for the most part, so materials have to come from Earth. Bigelow sent up his test modules on Russian Dnepr rockets but has made no secret of his desire to use rockets from an American company for crew and cargo as soon as they become available. 

The Rocketeer: John Carmack

The mascot of John D. Carmack’s rocket company is a cartoon armadillo wearing goggles and a scarf. It’s an oddly warm and fuzzy choice for such a nerdy founder. Armadillo Aerospace is the part-time venture of the lead programmer of Doom, Quake, and other 3D graphics-intensive video game megahits. 

It’s also the leanest of the companies described here. Before he started Armadillo Aerospace, Carmack had very little experience in building spaceships, but his company went on to scoop up a couple of prizes that NASA was offering for building lunar landers while simultaneously working on suborbital (and eventually orbital) rockets. Armadillo’s strategy is physically different from those of most of its competitors, featuring a rapidly evolving form that adhered to Carmack’s credo to try out lots of options and abandon failures quickly—pretty much the opposite of NASA’s modus operandi.

In August, Carmack caused a small stir by noting in a speech at a Quake convention that he didn’t consider NASA a “good value,” suggesting that Armadillo would make a habit of refusing contracts with the space agency because he doesn’t want to get stuck running a “small company that does government work.” The company scrambled to clarify that it was very happy to take NASA’s money as part of the Flight Opportunities Program, especially since “we do not have to change anything in our development program to accommodate what we perceive to be a burgeoning embryonic market.” Nice work if you can get it.

The Legislator: Dana Rohrabacher

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) may be Congress’ only proud space geek. On the accomplishments section of his official website, the beach-district congressman lists his work on commercial space first, boasting in particular about serving as chairman of the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics from 1997 to January 2005, “having been given a two-year waiver to serve beyond the normal six-year term limit,” and helping enact the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, which sheltered start-up commercial space companies from overly burdensome regulation. He has also pushed the Zero Gravity, Zero Tax Act, which would protect “space-related income” from taxation and offer tax credits to investors in some types of space companies. 

A former Reagan speechwriter and co-sponsor of an amendment to prohibit the Department of Justice from interfering with the implementation of state medical marijuana laws, Rohrabacher is California all the way. Perhaps because of that, he is not afraid to say what he thinks. He told SpaceNews in October that “NASA does not have the best track record with keeping the actual costs of programs low.” By contrast, he said, “commercial-based solutions generate more launches, spreading out fixed costs, creating efficiencies and improving reliability.” As Atlantis prepared for its final launch in July, Rohrabacher took to The Hill to argue that “we will only lose America’s leadership in human spaceflight if we prevent the free market from pursuing multiple, independent launchers and vehicles.”

The Regulator: George Nield

“Soon the government will play a less important role in space, and I’m pretty excited about it.” At first glance, that’s an odd thing for George Nield to say. As the associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Nield is the guy whom owners and operators of commercial space vehicles go to when they need permission to do something—including things that are currently prohibited. 

Nield’s role at the FAA is twofold: He is charged with ensuring public safety but also with promoting the fledgling commercial space transportation industry. “Frankly, I think it’s fair to say that we are not your typical regulatory bureaucracy,” he says. “We’re not just going to say no and kick back the applications and see if somebody brings up a better rocket. We really want industry to succeed.”

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 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||


  • 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||


  • ||

    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 we come!

  • np||

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

  • ||


  • ||

    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.

  • 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 ! 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-

  • 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​ , 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​ , the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization


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