The bold, brave race to make money in space

It’s impossible to predict whether the space entrepreneurs’ plans for space tourism, prospecting or settlement will achieve lift-off. But that’s not stopping wealthy investors with stars in their eyes.

Will the Rockefellers and Gateses of the future make their fortunes in space? Space missions used to be the preserve of national space agencies, but today it may be modest start-ups that have the boldest ambitions. Eric Anderson invented space tourism because myopia meant he would never be an astronaut. Fifteen years after founding Space Adventures, which arranges for billionaires to ride on board Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station, he and his business partner have started Planetary Res­our­ces to mine asteroids. “The reason I got into commercial human space flight was to go to space myself . . .  [now] our goal is to bring the solar system’s resources within the economic sphere of Earth,” he says.

Anderson’s idea is that ice-rich asteroids could one day supply water to astronauts and hydrogen and oxygen to space-based “gas stations”, en­abling satellites to refuel and spacecraft to travel deeper into the solar system. Eventually, he hopes to ret­urn precious metals to earth, al­though many question the economics.

For now, his focus is prospecting. The first step, starting in 2014, is to put small telescopes into space. The telescopes will gather intelligence about asteroids and could also undertake revenue-generating work. For example, it hopes to generate revenues by serving clients such as businesses, scientists and even NASA, which plans to capture and study NASA an asteroid. To help win public support, Planetary Resources ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund a science initiative to make one of the space telescopes available to amateur astronomers.

Other plans by space entrepreneurs include space habitats, commercial spacelines (the equivalent of airlines), and plans by SpaceX, the first private operator, to ship cargo to the ISS, to fly settlers to Mars.

Whether many space ventures will achieve lift-off, let alone turn a profit, is impossible to predict. Space proj­ects, by their nature, have protracted development phases, unformed markets and supply chains, and eat up cash. Yet for all its gravity-defying challenges, commercial space succeeds in attracting backers. Planetary Resources’ investors include Google’s Eric Schmidt and Larry Page. SpaceX was started by Elon Musk, who co-founded PayPal.

What money buys in space

–      Suborbital flights: Dubbed the “bungee jumps” of space travel and expected to be available next year, suborbital trips fly you into the lower reaches of space for a few minutes of weightlessness at zero gravity. Operators include Virgin Galactic, SXC, Space Adventures, and Blue Origin. Tickets range from $100,000 to $250,000. Virgin says its air-launched craft, which detaches from a carrier, is environmentally efficient and may be safer than alternatives. SXC says its own one-stage system is simple to operate and refuel.

–  Orbital: Pioneered by Space Adventures, which has arranged for wealthy private citizens to take spare seats on official Russian Soyuz spacecraft missions to the International Space Station since 2001.

The next flight is scheduled for 2015. Highlights include circling Earth every 90 minutes and up to 12 days in space. Tickets cost $52m.

–      Lunar: A trip around the far side of the moon offered by Space Adventures. The maiden voyage, with space for two, is expected to fly in 2017 with tickets costing $150 million each. Sold out.

Entrepreneurs parlaying capital and commercialism into space tourism in­c­lude Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, a US-based operator founded by the British entrepreneur; Amazon boss Jeff Bezos is the founder of Blue Origin, another space tourism company. “For [high-achieving people] there’s something thrilling about the idea of pushing the boundaries of human capabilities,” says Carissa Bryce Christensen, managing partner at The Tauri Group, a US space and homeland security consultancy.

One big issue faced by all companies interested in profiting from space is whether commercial exploitation of the final frontier is legal, and on what authority. Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, also an aspiring asteroid miner, claim the 1967 Outer Space Treaty permits them to mine asteroids and keep the proceeds. But Joan­ne Gabrynowicz, a law professor at Mississippi University, says that “legal opinion over space property rights is divided and politicised”. Space-going nations tend to say extracted materials belong to the extractor; some non-space-goers say they should be subject to an international regime empowered to determine property rights and ap­portion profits. In the absence of clear legal direction, businesses may decide that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission and act anyway, thereby forcing a political resolution.

Space tourist companies also face regulatory uncertainty. By the end of 2013, Virgin Galactic plans to do a full test flight. It hopes to achieve a commercial first by piloting private citizens to suborbital space in its SpaceShipTwo craft “soon after that”, says chief executive George White­sides. He avoids naming a date, perhaps mindful of setbacks that have previously led the business to delay its timescales. For $250,000, passengers will fly from New Mexico in an air-launched spacecraft, float around the cabin and gaze on the curvature of Earth. But before that, Virgin Galactic will inform them that the spacecraft has not been certified for safe­ty, explain the risks, and require them to sign an “informed consent” document.

This is in line with an interim regulatory framework, devised by US federal and state legislators, exempting space operators from the stringent com­pliance tests applied to airlines and obliging early adopters of space flight to fly at their own risk. The argument is that, as in the pioneer days of aviation, both the industry and its overseers need time and flight performance data to establish best practice. Even so, some lawyers question whether the principle of informed consent, already applied in extreme sports with mixed success, would always stand up in court. “If a [spacecraft] is flying after only a few test flights, it’s questionable whether passengers can give informed consent, as there is virtually no data to assess risks on,” says Frans von der Dunk, a professor of law at Nebraska University. Others argue that the industry’s habit of publicising celebrities who sign up for trips glamorises space flight and gloss­es over possible risks.

One drawback for the businesses that base themselves in the US is that they must comply with the US International Traffic in Arms Regulation export controls, which include spacecraft. For Virgin Galactic, this could mean delaying plans to run trips from overseas spaceports. “I wouldn’t say that it’s not possible that we would get an export licence, but I would say that the bar for consideration is [set] high,” says Whitesides. European operators intending to fly US spacecraft also face ITAR challenges. Space Expedition Corporation, a Dutch-owned space tourist company, which is leasing US-built XCOR Lynx spacecraft, is lobbying the US authorities for permission to fly from the Caribbean island of Curaçao – while planning for a US launch if permission is withheld. Another issue is that it must employ US maintenance and flight crews, even if it launches outside the US. Chief executive Michiel Mol, an entrepreneur with a background in video games and Formula One, ac­knowledges the restriction is a “constraint”.

Are there enough wealthy adventurers to make space tourism viable? Research by Tauri Group suggests that over the next decade more than 4,000 individuals and some scientists will buy tickets or fly payloads on suborbital spacecraft, generating revenues of about $600 million – enough to support an industry of multiple operators, it concludes.

Virgin Galactic recently sold its 600th ticket and Mr Whitesides is upbeat. “To have [sold that many] … before we have started commercial operations, for what is frankly a pretty futuristic service, is a pretty good sign.”

Anderson is contemplating asteroids and other space ad­ven­tures. As well as orbital trips, his space tourist business is now arranging suborbital flights and expeditions to the far side of the Moon. But he has yet to fulfil his personal space dream. At $52 million a ride, he says, orbiting Earth is “expensive” − and staff don’t get a discount.

Copyright the Financial Times 2013.

Related Articles