Space Entrepreneurs Wait for that 'Netscape Moment'

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.