Entrepreneurial view on space access [17

Currently, there is a difference of opinion on how to lower the cost of space access, and who should pay for it. The debate was evident among space advocates attending the National Space Society's International Space Development Conference in 2006. NewSpace entrepreneurs like Peter Diamandis and Burt Rutan are prepared to go it alone with just private investments, whether from billionaires, venture capital, or private equity funds. In fact, Rutan, designer and builder of SpaceShipOne, contends that taxpayer-funded space research makes no sense! He wants to get the aerospace industry off the "government dole''. Yet, even advocates admit that smaller operations like his Scaled Composites, or Elon Musk's SpaceX, cannot alone fulfill the nation's Vision of Space Exploration goals. Space agencies have advantages of scale and funding that presently give them the leadership role in returning to the Moon permanently.

However, even big Agency contractors, like Lockheed-Martin Space Systems, are concerned that NASA's space efforts fail to inspire young people. Art Stephenson, vice president of Northrop-Grumman's Space Exploration Systems, laments that the Agency is risk-averse, not inspiring. But the conventional wisdom among the government's prime aerospace contractors is that the public sector has to first plow the path that private business will eventually take over. Thus, the strategy of the Agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services is perceived as a "breakthrough". COTS $500 million awards encourage private-sector participation in re-supplying the International Space Station. But this program is only the beginning of what is needed to attract small space firms with the purpose of lowering launch costs to orbit. Further, its challenge endeavor offers prizes for innovative technologies. Thus, the 2006 prizes for the Lunar Lander Analog will be administered through the non-profit X-Prize Foundation, as will the X-Prize Cup for the next round of hopefuls building space tourism vehicles.

NASA's Centennial Challenge included a $50,000 prize in 2005 for the space elevator game with a goal to develop wireless robot climbers and supercarbon nanotube tethers. In this first contest, none of the contestants won, but did demonstrate "breakthrough" technologies, such as an operational climber that power-beams. Thirty teams entered the 2006 competition because the prizes had risen to $200,000.

Even NASA's current research on a Crew Exploration Vehicle is being criticized because much of its hardware is Shuttle-derived. There is skepticism among taxpayers that the Agency does not have the resources to do all that the Administration has tasked it to do, and the political process is not likely to provide such. There is some consensus that, in the near future when CEV operations begin, the government will be responsible for the more difficult missions, such as spaceflights first to the Moon and Mars, while giant aerospace contractors and entrepreneurs will most likely build a commercial presence.

For a decade the entrepreneurial space transportation community has gathered in Phoenix, Arizona, every Spring for their informal Space Access Conference. According to Jeff Foust, founder of The Space Review, a free Internet service of essays and commentary about the final frontier, the agenda of these meetings is shifting. Until now their discussions and debates emphasized reusable launch vehicles, take-off and landing modes, launch modes, and engine designs. The transition is from entirely focusing on the technical aspects of spaceflight to the legal and financial issues faced by start-up aerospace enterprises. For example, there is concern about export control, specifically ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations). Participants want the U.S. Congress to reform export control and security measures. Another illustration is the talk about needed liability insurance for RLV developers, especially for cargo and passengers. Federal law regarding insurance is a factor in the granting of an FAA permit or license for spaceflight. Space lawyers are already looking to influence state legislation regulation of personal spaceflight. But new space ventures require funding for their R&D. For those without wealth patrons or space prize winnings, this means more sophisticated business development with venture capital firms and equity capital funds. If a new company does not have an angel investor with long-term horizons, then space entrepreneurs have to prepare believable ''cases for investment" that project ROI and satisfaction for such a consumer market as space tourism (see www.thespacereview.com articles #840/1 of March 26, 2007).

Perhaps strategic space planners in both the public and private sectors worldwide need to recognize the need for synergy among the various entities. After all, the ultimate challenge is to drastically reduce the cost of accessing and developing space, so that space industrialization and settlement may progress by mass migration aloft!

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