Barbed wire surrounded the Bigelow Aerospace compound, set in a stretch of dry, rock-strewn Nevada desert. Las Vegas glittered in the distance, but otherwise the vista had the desolate look of a lunar landscape, with one difference: The summer heat was oppressive—enough to make you long for the cool vacuum of outer space.
The van full of visiting space geeks didn’t mind the harsh conditions. Last July they happily left the air-conditioned glamour of Vegas’ Flamingo Hotel and Casino, where the cream of the private space industry had gathered for the NewSpace 2006 conference, to spend a few hours at Bigelow’s warehouse and mission control center. They couldn’t have been more excited if the van had been on its way to a Star Trek–themed strip club.
Earlier in the week, Bigelow Aerospace had successfully launched Genesis I into orbit. A small pod that inflates once aloft, Genesis I is a prototype for cheap, livable, interconnecting rooms for commercial use in space. The first in a series of launches scheduled every six months for the next two and a half years, it marked the beginning of what could be the first privately funded space station.
Robert Bigelow, president and CEO of the company, made his fortune with the hotel chain Budget Suites of America and other real estate ventures. He has a logical goal in mind: an orbital hotel. Similar in concept to the International Space Station but much larger, Bigelow’s space-habitat project uses a cast-off National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) system of inflatable pods. He bought the rights to the technology in 2001, when he read that NASA was scrapping the promising system after many years and many more millions of dollars of development. Bigelow, 62, has since sunk $75 million into the project, with a promise of $425 million more to come.
Stepping inside Bigelow Aerospace’s cool, antiseptic, heavily guarded warehouse was like walking into a science fiction novel. Enormous models and pieces of space-bound machinery were strewn about like forgotten Lego blocks over tens of thousands of square feet. The delegation from the NewSpace conference shuffled along with the quiet awe usually reserved for holy places. At one point, a member of Bigelow’s mission control team looked at his watch and said, “Actually, Genesis should be passing overhead right now.” Everyone in the room looked up, instinctively, as though the module would be visible. Then they grinned sheepishly at each other.
The grins reflected something more than embarrassment at having fallen for an old gag. (“Hey look,” someone cracked, “gullible is written on the ceiling.”) The visitors were just plain happy. After years of hope and speculation, the private-sector space enthusiasts were thrilled to hear the words “It’s overhead right now” from one of their own.
The Genesis launch, while exciting, is peanuts compared to what’s coming in the next two years. Besides the ever-larger Bigelow launches, scads of private suborbital space vehicles will be popping up all over the planet and breaking out of Earth’s atmosphere, about 62 miles above sea level.
Bigelow and his ilk are part of an industry that calls itself NewSpace, though some prefer the techy alt.space and others favor the touchy-feely personal space. Since the late ’90s, they’ve been coalescing into clubs, nonprofits, and other associations. In the bad old days, this crowd got together mostly to bitch about NASA and its evil stepchildren, Lockheed and Boeing. But while NASA remains a topic of interest, NewSpacers have passed out of their whiny adolescent phase and into industrious young adulthood. Their aspirations are appropriately modest—mostly suborbital, just a quick trip to the edge of the atmosphere. They’re setting aside deep space exploration and the moon for now (though they talk a big game about what’s next), opting instead for reasonable, practical, short-term goals: quick hops for tourists and other near-to-Earth fun. And instead of crying on each other’s shoulders, suddenly the NewSpacers are seeing each other—and sometimes NASA—as the competition.
Thanks in part to a preponderance of tech millionaires, the NewSpace industry is picking up speed. As Bigelow has noted, “We are probably a very close cousin to the world of the Internet and the computer world—doubling every 18 months.”
In addition to big-name companies like Virgin Galactic, dozens of smaller entrepreneurial ventures wait in the wings, including Armadillo Aerospace, the rocket company started by Doom and Quake programmer John Carmack. So do communications equipment manufacturers, spacesuit designers, and many other enterprises, releasing pent-up innovation and creativity as NASA’s long-lived monopoly on space, or at least suborbital space, wheezes to an end.
The industry, dominated just a few years ago by a bunch of seemingly loony space cadets with big dreams, is becoming the province of respectable, hardheaded CEOs. What happened?
The biggest name in the NewSpace business is the British billionaire Richard Branson. The pop entrepreneur founded the space tourism company Virgin Galactic in 2004, and he plans to be flying missions by 2008. Apparently taking a page from Gilligan’s Island, Virgin will carry paying passengers on three-hour tours, complete with seven minutes of zero gravity, after just a week of preflight training. The Virgin spacecraft will be modeled on SpaceShipOne, the vehicle dreamed up by the aviation legend Burt Rutan. Rutan’s spacecraft captured the privately funded Ansari X Prize in 2004 by being the first private manned ship to exit the atmosphere twice in a span of two weeks. After taking the $10 million prize, Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, signed with Branson to build the bigger, better SpaceShipTwo. Rutan says the new ship will fly higher than the first model and carry eight people.
Branson has generated headlines for the private spaceflight industry (and himself) by accepting several $200,000 down payments for early flights. Potential tourist-astronauts include Moby, Sigourney Weaver, Brad Pitt, Stephen Hawking, and Paris Hilton. In March 2005, Doug Ramsberg of Northglenn, Colorado, won a free trip on a Virgin vehicle in a company-sponsored lottery. (Perhaps he’ll be one of the lucky few to witness Hawking and Hilton colliding in a brainy yet glamorous zero-g mishap.) Branson says he intends to be on the first flight of the geekily named VSS Enterprise, along with members of his family, two years from now.
Two additional companies, Space Adventures and Rocketplane, are also taking reservations and down payments for flights expected to launch on a similar timetable. But they aren’t Virgin’s only competition in the suborbital sweepstakes.
Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, now runs SpaceX, which is developing the Falcon rocket series, designed to be a cheap, reusable means of getting satellites and eventually heavier space vehicles for human use into orbit. Falcon testing has been mostly unsuccessful to date, with several delayed launches and an unfortunate fire at the first launch, which sent the rocket crashing into the ocean. But Musk continues to be regarded as a leading figure in the commercial space world—some say the leading figure. NASA recently awarded SpaceX, in partnership with Rocketplane, a $500 million prize to build a vehicle that will deliver crew and cargo to the International Space Station by 2010. Another
potential customer for SpaceX is Bigelow, who has expressed a preference for privately developed U.S. rockets. Until a domestic option emerges, all of his modules “are flying on Russian Dneprs,” Bigelow says. “They altered and removed nuclear warheads and they’re using them for commercial purposes, which I think is pretty damn neat.”
The most secretive entrant in the commercial space race is Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com (and a donor to the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this magazine). His space tourism company, Blue Origin, is based on a 165,000-acre Texas ranch. It’s developing a rocket ship called the New Shepard. A flight on the vehicle would last just a few minutes and allow a brief period of weightlessness. In mandatory government filings, Blue Origin revealed plans to start testing unmanned vehicles at the end of 2006. Otherwise Bezos has remained mum.
Branson and his peers are confining themselves to suborbital travel for now: blastoff, a few minutes of zero gravity at the edge of space, then back again. The technology to make this type of trip has been around for decades, though NewSpacers are working to make the trip exponentially cheaper, better, and faster. Bigelow’s hotel-in-space project is more ambitious, on par with the International Space Station, but also has a longer time horizon. And no one has taken serious practical steps toward a private voyage to the moon, though there has been a lot of discussion about the legal preconditions to make a moon trip attractive to entrepreneurs. For starters, it’s not clear how property rights will work on the moon or on asteroids. Who is allowed to build, and where? Perhaps more important, what can be brought back to Earth and sold?
Devotees of private space travel have long blamed NASA’s monopolistic behavior for their own failures. And it’s true NASA has done virtually nothing to encourage outside innovation over the years—despite repeated mandates to do so—while selfishly sucking up billions of dollars and all the dreams and hopes of space buffs nationwide. But when the NewSpacers lowered their sights from “infinity and beyond” to a few minutes of floating, they realized NASA couldn’t really stop them from snagging a little bit of space all their own.