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New Entrants Versus Incumbents: Triumph of Truth and Technology

an earlier test flight
by Michael Potter
and Rick Tumlinson
Mojave CA (SPX) Jun 21, 2004
Today's successful launch of the private SpaceShipOne high above the sands of California's Mojave Desert, marks the beginning of a new era of incumbent space agencies being challenged by new players.

SpaceshipOne was built by Burt Rutan and his dedicated team at Scaled Composites with backing form Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures. For many, Rutan personifies a number of core American values: rugged individualism, entrepreneurism, ingenuity, and a discomfort with intrusive governmental regulation.

The seeds of the commercial revolution were planted a few years ago. It began with the private takeover of the Russian Mir Space Station- which led eventually to the flight of the first private citizen on the International Space Station, and at about the same time the founding of the X-Prize, which inspired private groups around the world to take a shot at space.

There are not only commercial new entrants, there are also nation-state entrants including, China and India. An entrepreneur, or a civilian space explorer, does not care if he can purchase a low cost launch from the Chinese, the Indians or a fellow entrepreneur.

They are agnostic for the most part, and will go for their ride where the price is right, be it Beijing, Bangalore or Bezos (the founder of Amazon who is also the founder of the new entrant rocket company Blue Origin).

But the interesting element in this new era is that all the governments will soon be competing not just with each other, but a whole new commercial human space industry, which should, with any luck, drive the costs down for all.

A central question revolves around whether Moore's law can apply to space technologies and systems. PayPal Founder, Elon Musk, through his rocket company SpaceX ,is trying to change the entire satellite space launch vehicle industry by dramatically shifting the cost equation from the $50 million dollar price tag to less then $10 million per launch. If one looks at the human side of the equation, the amount of money Tito paid to experience space for a week approached $20 million dollars.

A SpaceShipOne type system will allow civilian space explorers to touch the edge of space for under $100,000. Although orbital space is a much harder place to reach, one can expect a dramatic cost reduction there too.

This is especially true when one considers the recent announcement that SpaceX has agreed to carry Bigelow Aerospace's 1/3 scale space hotel module (which has more interior volume than the existing government space station) on a flight aboard one of its future rockets. Suddenly, there will be a whole new branch of human space, complete with commercial transportation and habitation. This hotel project is funded by Bob Bigelow the owner of the Budget Suites of America's Hotels.

SpaceshipOne is not an off the shelf replacement for the anachronistic hardware of the space shuttle. However, it does highlight a compelling difference between the incumbent's approach to space, which is neither logical nor sustainable over the long-term and the new entrant's drive into the frontier, which is based on ingenuity, simplicity and maximum re-usability at lowest possible cost.

From a monetary point of view the $10 million X-prize that SpaceshipOne is competing to win is insignificant. The real power of SpaceshipOne is the very clear illustration that it is possible to do things differently, that things can be done in a logical, compelling fashion is potentially worth billions of dollars to an industry that has been through difficult times.

These powers of example will only increase the pressures to reform agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), which are bloated, stifling and out of step with this new reality. For NASA's part it needs to be turned into more of a DARPA like agency.

Rather than building its own Earth to space transportation systems and space facilities, it should instead focus on how to enable the private sector to do things "faster, better, and cheaper." From supporting tech development on Earth to anchor tenancy in orbit, on the Moon and Mars, it can play a great role, as it carries on its own scientific explorations. In the future, every investment that NASA is required to make should have a 10X technological return on investment.

Cynics may dismiss a private rocket soaring to 100 km as an insignificant and unrealistic challenge to NASA and government dominated space programs. Perhaps they may see Rutan as a hobbyist on steroids, trying to pander to an emerging "space tourism" market. All of these would trivialize what is truly a pivotal and profound milestone in the development of outer space.

Billions of dollars of value have already been created by space entrepreneurs in the areas of remote sensing, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and communications satellites. It was the late founder of the first private satellite company, Rene Anselmo, who declared, "Truth and technology will triumph over bullshit and bureaucracy." SpaceshipOne has triumphed.

It used to be that only a very few well paid and highly trained government employees could join the astronaut club. This is not longer the case. The pilot of SpaceshipOne has changed all that (and no one can call someone with the right stuff a "tourist"). Soon, anyone with enough money to buy a large house, private plane or top of the line sports car will be able to enter the frontier.

Dramatically bringing down the cost of becoming an astronaut, will inevitably cheapen the currency of that which was formerly associated with joining the elite astronaut club.

Michael Potter, is Director of Paradigm Ventures a technology investment firm. He writes on international technology issues. Rick Tumlinson, is Founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, he has testifed in Congress 6 times, and has been involved with several space projects.

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