March 17, 2013

Fly me to the moon

Entrepreneurs and scientists make plans and look for ways to pay for private space exploration, including tourism.

By MARK K. MATTHEWS Orlando Sentinel

(Continued from page 1)

SpaceX launch
click image to enlarge

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches March 1 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for its second resupply mission to the space station.

Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/McClatchy Newspapers

It's a publicity boon for Axe -- which now has a way to advertise directly to the 540,000 people who have signed up for the contest -- as well as for XCOR, which has yet to fly a single tourist. (Test flights are expected to start this year, with "paid participant" flights, at $95,000 apiece, in early 2014).

"It makes a lot of sense. What captures the imagination more than spaceflight?" said Andrew Nelson, chief operating officer of XCOR.

His company also has a competitor -- Virgin Galactic, founded by billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson -- that wants to launch tourists to suborbital space aboard six-passenger space planes for $200,000 each. At least 530 people have made reservations with the New Mexico-based business.

This explosion of recent commercial ventures is because of several factors, starting with NASA's retirement of the space shuttle in 2011 without an immediate replacement, said Caceres of the Teal Group.

New commercial providers stepped into the void, starting with SpaceX and its founder, Internet tycoon Elon Musk. After getting seed money from NASA, SpaceX built a rocket and capsule and won a $1.6 billion contract to ferry supplies to the station.

Caceres said the NASA contract has allowed SpaceX to pursue its goal of lowering the cost of rocket launches, which in turn will enable other companies to orbit satellites and habitats more cheaply. These ultimately could be key in developing a space economy that could support ambitious human missions.

Still, Caceres cautioned that the recent spate of headline-grabbing ventures doesn't mean the "final frontier" is about to become the next economic hot spot.

"The potential is there but not in the short term. It's the medium term. I don't see huge amounts of money in the short term," he said.

Key are a better global economy -- which will free up more investment -- and the normalization of supply runs to the station and tourism trips by XCOR and Virgin Galactic to suborbital space.

"You need dreamers," Caceres said. "But you need that in unison with real commercial ventures like SpaceX that have proven themselves."


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