Tom Keighley

Doing business in space

Earlier this year, Bdaily ran a piece called entrepreneurialism on the final frontier in which we spoke to Indian-born business magnate Naveen Jain. He talked about his ambitions to pioneer private space exploration and mining of asteroids rich in minerals.

This might seem a little sci-fi to most people, but the reality is here and the space race is now in the hands of private companies, all hungry to crack the final frontier. Bdaily talked to space expert and member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Paul Kostek, to find out more.

“People used to watch 2001 A Space Odyssey and ask whether we would ever see a Pan Am space craft flying round. There’s certainly some step changes from 15-20 years ago. We’re seeing dramatic changes in technology - including the pricing and availability,” says Paul.

With a background in aeronautics and flight engineering Paul has seen plenty of his contemporaries become very technically skilled and looking very financially handsome. This evolution in technology and the ‘maturing’ of the 1960s space-race workforce is creating an interesting wave in the space sector. Now the final frontier is becoming increasingly accessible for private entrepreneurs.

“If you think back to Richard Branson and Paul Allen’s SpaceShipOne project (the first manned private space flight) which won the Ansari X prize - that was the moment that people began to realise it wasn’t the preserve of large government projects,” adds Paul.

Paul draws comparisons between the space sector and the evolution of commercial air flight. Planes started out as primitive craft that could not fly high, gave a turbulent flight, and cost a lot of money. Now, air travel is taken for granted, and he believes space travel could be on the same trajectory.

Paul reels off all the usual names that colour the contemporary space entrepreneur scene: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson, among others. For innovative minds, space still holds the ultimate fascination. Access to off-the-shelf technology to enable space travel has opened the door to these people.

Paul explains: “A lot of the materials that NASA and others dreamed of years ago, in some instances claimed it wasn’t possible, are now possible and affordable. All of these guys are trying to work out ways in which the materials can be made reusable, and cut down that massive one-time launch cost.

“A few years ago the Russians were offering seats on a spacecraft for something like $30m, with months of training involved, and so on. The Branson Virgin Galactic model means you are a passenger on board what is essentially a commercial plane that just happens to go into lower Earth orbit, for $200,000.”

Distances and the fuel used to travel them are the key to affordability of private space endeavours - and Paul suggests this area will see the greatest amount of work in coming years.

“The Branson model takes people into lower Earth orbit and the Musk model is servicing the Space Station but beyond that, who knows. It’s almost a twofold issue. One, you need to get into orbit, and then, if you’re looking to go to the moon for example, then you will have to look at different models.

“People have even been looking at huge sail type structures that would look to propel a space vehicle. In the old Apollo missions it was like a slingshot method that used gravity to push the vehicle towards the moon. These methods reduce the need to carry fuel.”

So, what’s the risk to all this? Insurance companies will dictate much of the industry regulation, suggests Paul.

He adds: “I’m sure for the folks going on this Virgin Galactic trip there’s all sorts of waivers to sign on liability should certain events happen. I think countries and firms will have to get together and develop standards. The situation will become comparable to international air traffic organisation - where we will need to know who is launching and what orbit they will be.”

Technology aside, another factor in space travel is the psychology. Some space racers have their sights set on Mars. Theoretically, going to Mars carries with it the assumption that you would never come back.

Paul continues: “It’s all very well being slightly nervous about flying and then getting on a plane for a couple of hours, but getting the right people into a spacecraft is going to be a challenge. This is not going to be a normal tourism trip. To go into space you need a level of training. Once you get on that craft there’s a realisation that you aren’t coming back on the next plane - it might be four or five months later - even longer.”

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