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The Triumph of Truth and Technology

by Michael Potter and Rick Tumlinson
Los Angeles CA (SPX) Oct 06, 2004
As if the incredible and record breaking flight of SpaceShip One this summer were not enough of a wake up call, this week we are again witness to a revolution in space flight, as a small white rocketship rose above the golden windswept sands of California's Mojave desert. The winning of the X-Prize heralds that a new space age is here, wherein new entrants and alternative space players will challenge the incumbent space agencies.

While many may bemoan the loss of American leadership in other technologies, as of Monday the center of gravity for GLOBAL space leadership is now arguably emerging from the desert sands of California. SpaceShip one and the other space vehicles being developed in Southern California are on the same order of a paradigm shifter as the personal computer was to the mainframe computer.

Spaceship One was built only a few hours drive from Los Angeles by Californian Burt Rutan, one of the greatest living aerospace and material composite engineers, and his dedicated team at Scaled Composites with backing form Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures. Rutan personifies a number of core American values: rugged individualism, entrepreneurism, ingenuity, and a discomfort with intrusive governmental regulation.

Cynics may dismiss a private rocket soaring to 100 km as an endeavor posing an insignificant and unrealistic challenge to NASA and government dominated space programs. Perhaps insiders 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.

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

Spaceship One 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 Spaceship one is competing to win is insignificant. The real power of Spaceship One 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.

There are not only commercial new entrants, there are also nation state new 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 Baikonur. In this new era governments will be competing not just with each other, but a whole new commercial human space industry, which should drive the costs down for all.

The power of the example set by space "free agents" 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. Yet there is still an important role they can play, if they can make the necessary changes.

Take NASA for example, rather than building its own single purpose space vehicles at a cost some estimate at over $20 billion, could instead offer to buy its rides into space from the private sector. This would enable an entire new industry.

Focusing itself on exploration and technology development, being a good customer for space transportation services, and acting as an anchor tenant in communities on the Moon and Mars, NASA could save taxpayers billions of dollars and kick start a new frontier in space. it is a win-win situation, bringing down costs for all - including those who might want to get out there themselves.

It used to be that only a very few highly trained government employees could join the astronaut club. This is not longer the case. The pilot of SpaceShip One has changed all that. 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 was formerly associated with joining the elite astronaut club. Yet at the same time low cost access to space increases the value to all of humanity by making space more accessible for business and pleasure. Lets give a heartfelt salute, on behalf of all mankind, to the new entrants, and let us hope that they triumph.

  • 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 testified before Congress 6 times, and has been involved with several space projects.

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