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Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 16:28 EDT

Space Entrepreneurs Wait for that ‘Netscape Moment’

November 28, 2007

GOLDEN, Colo. — From a new
array of space-enabled technologies to the emerging commercial market for
passenger space travel, the commercialization of next-generation space
enterprises appears to be well under way. But challenges exist, industry
officials said, including making sure that entrepreneurial firms gain proper
financial footing and overcoming the legal, regulatory and insurance obstacles that could undermine the profit potential of the emerging commercial space
industry.

Steady
progress was made this year on several fronts in the entrepreneurial space
sector
. In 2008, that growth is expected to include even more advanced
technology development, according to industry officials. Nevertheless, members
of the entrepreneurial space industry say more work is needed to assure that
innovative space products and services are able to secure a profit-making niche
in today’s economy.

Dull but
growing roar

“I think
we’re seeing a rising tide of activities that are enabled by space,” said Burke
Fort, executive director of the Eighth Continent Project, based here at the
Colorado School of Mines. The project is an effort to help create new
space-oriented startup companies.

For
instance, Fort said, location technology, space-based imaging, melded with
small but highly integrated hand-held devices can have a big impact on a
variety of markets.

“There’s an
emerging commercial space economy that’s providing content – thanks to space,”
Fort told Space News in a Nov. 19 interview. “I think what we’re going to see
is a kind of dull but growing roar, labeling it a new era – Space 2.0 – of
commercial development.

Fort said
that with this emergent commercial space sector there should be an increase in
the number of aerospace-savvy support professionals, be they Intellectual
Property lawyers, risk managers or management consultants. This expertise can
help support the small but growing number of entrepreneurial firms that are
starting to pop up, he said.

Fueling
an economic engine

“We need
some wins,” said Peter Diamandis, chairman and chief executive officer of the X
Prize Foundation
in Santa Monica, Calif.

Those wins
next year, he said, might constitute a successful flight of the Space
Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Falcon 1 booster; possible rollout of
Virgin Galactic spaceliner hardware; demonstration flights of the Rocket Racing
League’s X-Racer; first flight to orbital altitude of Armadillo Aerospace gear;
and a couple-dozen fully registered teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize
– a robotic race to the Moon for a $30 million purse.

A goal is
to try and educate the financial communities – and the risk-taking community –
to fuel an economic engine that yields true breakthroughs, Diamandis told Space
News Nov. 11 during Space Vision 2007, an event held at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and sponsored by the Students for the
Exploration and Development of Space.

“The first
time when these companies go public and return 20 times or 50 times the amount
of money that was invested, that’s a key moment in time,” Diamandis added.
“You had Spacehab and Orbital Sciences go public as pseudo-commercial space
companies. But they’ve been a flat stock price for 20 years. We really need
someone to have a Netscape event,” he said, pointing to the Initial Public
Offering response in the mid-1990′s of investment dollars into that Web
browser.

Customer
demand

Esther
Dyson, who heads EDventure Holdings in New York, said in a Nov. 16 e-mail
response to questions that greater funding for entrepreneurial space activities
is likely to occur in 2008. “And at the same time, we’ll see progress in
actually building and testing spacecraft and components,” she said.

Dyson, who
has made investments in several entrepreneurial space firms, including XCOR
Aerospace, Space Adventures, Constellation Services, and Zero Gravity Corp.,
said that with luck there will also be more visible customer demand, perhaps
more announcements of firm plans for competition with Virgin Galactic and Rocketplane
Global in the budding suborbital passenger flight market.

Dyson
agreed that a “killer application” or “Netscape moment” would be just as valid
within the entrepreneurial space community.

“There’s
often something that catches the popular imagination,” Dyson said. This can
occur because of either public use or people seeing movie stars utilize it, as
the characters did in “You’ve Got Mail – the romantic comedy film released in
1998 that chronicled the spreading use of e-mail,’ she said.

In a
similar vein, Dyson said that perhaps “viral videos” stemming from next year’s
flight to the International Space Station of Richard Garriott, a game developer
and son of a former NASA astronaut, could boost public space travel interest. A
viral video is video content that escalates in popularity through Internet
e-mail messaging or media sharing Web sites.

Dyson also
said having Virgin Galactic persuade some television show to have part of an
episode in suborbital space also would stir popular imagination.

Critical
path

Alex Tai,
chief operating officer of Virgin Galactic and chairman of the Washington-based
Personal Spaceflight Federation, said a number of topics need to be addressed
in the next year or so to get the industry adequately prepared for the first
commercial suborbital space tourism flights.

The
membership of the Personal Spaceflight Federation includes operators of
spaceships, spaceports and orbital spaceflight facilities. The group was organized
to promote the development of commercial human spaceflight, pursue ever-higher
levels of safety, and share best practices and expertise throughout the
industry.

The topics
the organization intends to address include legislative, regulatory and insurance
issues – particularly third-party liability and insurance for the pilots and
passengers of commercial spaceships, Tai told Space News in an Oct. 28
interview.

Over the
next year in particular, Tai said, the Personal Spaceflight Federation intends to
build upon the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, the legislation
that put the regulatory framework in place for commercial human spaceflight.

“We need to
make sure, as we become smarter, we know what some of the issues are and how
that legislation may or may not need to be changed” Tai said.

Technological
readiness

Virgin
Galactic itself is continuing its work with Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif., to design a huge carrier drop plane, the White Knight 2, and SpaceShipTwo, the
suborbital craft that will transport paying passengers into suborbital space.

The July
accident in Mojave that occurred during engine component testing for
SpaceShipTwo was a setback that still needs to be fully analyzed, Tai said. “It
will go to market when it’s ready &ndash and not before,” Tai said.

One of the
big steps forward for Virgin Galactic this year, Tai said, was the contract the
company signed in August with the National Aerospace Training and Research Center in Southampton, Pa., to provide training for Virgin Galactic’s suborbital space
travelers.

Making use
of a high-tech centrifuge at the center, for example, customers can be taken on
a simulated, but accurate, flight profile of a SpaceShipTwo suborbital hop, he
said.

Tai said
Virgin Galactic has collected $31 million in deposits from future suborbital
space travelers. “One of the shocks,” Tai noted, “is that a lot of people just
want to go , and they don’t care what it’s like. They’ll go in a brown paper
bag because they just want to go into space.”

Nevertheless,
he said the company is sensitive to passenger expectations about space travel
and is paying close attention to detail about such things as the type of view
of the Earth passengers will have from suborbital altitude and making sure
hotel accommodations for flight training are top-notch.


Source: imaginova