Science & Technology

Rocket Men

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


Lots of kids go through an astronaut phase, usually sometime between fireman and president of the United States. For the last three generations of American children dreaming of slipping the surly bonds of Earth, the only game in the galaxy has been a federal agency: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). But since NASA's space shuttle program shuddered to a stop in July 2011 with the final flight of the Atlantis, those kids—and the adults they have become—have been forced to look outside of government for liftoff. 

As luck would have it, there are quite a few men (and they are virtually all men) who would be more than happy to help. These 21st-century pioneers want to make spaceflight affordable, accessible, and commonplace, making a buck off your childhood fantasies in the process. They can't offer the moon, yet. But they can supply various modes of travel and ways to achieve the astronaut experience, with or without Tang and freeze-dried ice cream.

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. reason has sketched this post-NASA vision in feature stories ranging from "Getting Off the Ground" (November 1981) to "Martian Chronicle" (February 1999) to "Space Travel for Fun and Profit" (January 2007). But thanks to a convergence of technological development, regulatory breathing room, and budgetary austerity (see "A Twinkle of Hope" on page 20), that future is now. 

Meet the folks who are working to get you and your inner child off terra firma and into the great beyond.

The Daredevil: Elon Musk

After SpaceX executed a nearly flawless launch and recovery of its Dragon capsule in December 2010, the company's CEO and founder, Elon Musk, had only one regret—that there wasn't anyone on board. "If there were people sitting in the Dragon capsule today," he said at a post-launch press conference, "they would have had a very nice ride." 

The Dragon voyage was the first time a commercial space vehicle had made it into orbit and back—a major milestone for the industry. For now the splashy success locks in Musk as the leader of a surprisingly large pack of space entrepreneurs who are looking to fill the gap left by NASA's decommissioned shuttle.

Musk, a Stanford grad school dropout who was born in South Africa, made his fortune—estimated at $670 million—as one of the founders of the online payment site PayPal. Then he founded Tesla Motors, where he led development of an all-electric sports car. 

After the space shuttles were retired, NASA was forced to start paying Russians to ferry Americans and their gear back and forth to the International Space Station, at about $63 million per seat. Musk says SpaceX can do it for one-third the price. The added risk of throwing humans—or as Musk refers to them, "biological cargo"—doesn't seem to worry him. 

There are plenty of details to be worked out as NASA hands over some of its traditional responsibilities to private industry. Musk's famously prickly personality has been on display throughout the negotiations. In late October, he was one of several representatives from commercial space firms who appeared before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to complain about the terms of a contract with NASA to provide taxi services between Earth and the International Space Station. NASA, it seems, is having trouble letting go. Displeased with how the hearing went, Musk says Space X "may not bid" for the crew-carrying contract after all. Although it has inked deals to move cargo for NASA, SpaceX is always careful to emphasize that it has a $1 billion roster of private clients in case the government deals don't pan out.

NASA doesn't have the agility or the drive of the modern space industry, so it needs SpaceX and its ilk more than the reverse. An August NASA study found that SpaceX spent a total of $443 million developing the Falcon 9 rocket and launch vehicle that bore the Dragon capsule aloft. If NASA had undertaken the same project, the study found, the bill would have come in closer to $1.4 billion.

The Mogul: Richard Branson

Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson isn't a rocket scientist, but he knows a good publicity stunt when he sees it. The Ansari X Prize, which offered $10 million in private money for the first nongovernmental organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft twice in a two-week period, brought a burst of public attention to the commercial space race in 2004. Branson quickly snapped up the rights to the winning vehicle, SpaceShipOne, and the team that went with it, including famous aviation whiz Burt Rutan. 

Since then Virgin has been working on SpaceShipTwo, which would carry two pilots and six passengers a few miles above the Karman line (the generally accepted threshold 62 miles up that separates Earth's atmosphere from outer space) to check out the view and enjoy a brief period of weightlessness. Charging $200,000 per person (with a $20,000 deposit, please) Virgin Galactic already has 450 people signed up to fly as soon as the technology is ready and the regulatory hurdles have been cleared.

 The project has had setbacks; as with many other competitors in the arena, the official start of Virgin's routine manned flights always seems to be two years away. But Branson is a tireless promoter, and Virgin Galactic has stayed in (and on top of) the news with a steady trickle of publicity stills, mockups, vehicle christenings, and other photo ops.

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 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." 

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."

Nield, an Air Force and NASA veteran, implemented Rep. Rohrabacher's Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, crafting a policy that treats space adventurers more like scuba divers or paragliders than airline passengers. The participants have to be adequately briefed on the risk involved, but if they give their consent the government gives its blessing and focuses on protecting bystanders from harm.

Nield sees the same silver lining for his pet industry that many entrepreneurs have spotted in the current budget crunch. "The government agencies are dependent on what the private industry is coming up with," he says. "It won't be the government that decides how many launches we're going to have. It will be industry, based on the customers they have." Pretty exciting indeed. 

Katherine Mangu-Ward is managing editor of reason.