ExWeb Space roundup, final: The "M" word

Posted: Apr 15, 2011 08:34 pm EDT

(By Tina Sjogren) If I was to picture the private space game in a casino setting, here's what I'd see:

In the bar on a lit up stage, showman Richard Branson impersonating Elvis. Over at the roulette tables, suicide gambler Elon Musk doubling down at each loss. Sitting with his back to the wall in the blackjack room; disciplined card counter Bigelow and his 20/80 money management system. Pacing overhead, NASA the bank, restlessly monitoring all bets through hidden ceiling glass.

Thumbing huge buckets of quarters finally: myself and all the other fools, trekking forests of slots in search for a loose machine, blissfully ignorant of probabilities and odds.

From the horse's mouth

This Wednesday at the 27th National Space Symposium - set by the picturesque climbing spots of Colorado Springs' Garden of the Gods - Gwynne Shotwell (SpaceX President), George Whitesides (Virgin Galactic CEO), and Robert Bigelow (Bigelow Aerospace founder) were grilled about their upstarts.

Q: How are they financed?


"Couple of hundred of millions from private investors," said Gwynne. "IPO" (hopefully) said Whitesides. "My own money," said Bigelow.

Q: What is their market and financial outlook?

Nations, the corporate community and perhaps a very wealthy person, reckoned Bigelow.

The 200 thousand ticket customer said Virgin, "the SUV-type price range," Whitesides explained. Then there was the research area, and possibilities of point-to-point travel. The new CEO also confirmed 400 deposits ("most full") and a tentative deadline for "going to Space" 15 months from now.

"The company expects to be cash positive in the first year," Whitesides said. On the question how many launches are needed for that, he replied that Virgin counts on launching 5 spaceships carrying 6 passengers each in 5-10 flights per week.

As for SpaceX, Gwynne said that "NASA has been an extra-ordinary customer." She acknowledged that the agency was key to SpaceX today, had contributed a lot to the development, and she didn't, "expect for the money to dry out."

As for working together, not so much it seems, except for Bigelow who said, "I'm open to that." Gwynne said the private initiatives were complimentary to each other and didn't cross into each other's swimming lanes, "but when cooperation is profitable capitalism will take over and we'll cooperate." ("SpaceX like to do everything themselves," said another from the industry to ExWeb the next day.)

Bigelow and SpaceX both agreed that government is vital to them while Whitesides remarked that Virgin hasn't received any such support yet. (Ed note: Scaled Composites were sold to Northrop soon after the XPrize victory, with Virgin keeping the Space tourism part and Burt Rutan reportedly remaining only as a consultant.)

As for safety, "insurance" said Gwynne, plus "we build for reliability" she stressed again and again (probably a boot to recent competitor Orbital's Taurus failure). "Insurance" Virgin chimed in adding, "and it looks as it is a business opportunity."

Bigelow joked he'll have a "substantial, phone book sized contingency agreement," but most of all very strict Guest Rules for the hotel. (No trashed rooms, no undisclosed nuke experiments).

Asked about their vision 50 years from now, "I don't have much imagination," laughed Gwynne. "But I guess we'll have colonies on Moon and Mars."

"Oh I dunno, we'll have sent millions of people to Space," Whitesides waved his hand, asking to quickly please revisit another matter, "since we are a commercial enterprise."

Only founder in place of the three major private Space upstarts, Bigelow didn't see any show stoppers either but worried that, "something will happen on the Moon that will catch us by complete surprise." 15 years from now, Bigelow said, "the Chinese dynamics will be huge."

"It will be a perfect storm, in favor of the Chinese, and a shift in psychological perception of power," he warned. ("Bigelow is the 'Donald Trump of Space'," one symposium attendee explained to me the following day.)

"Secure Mars!" was Robert Bigelow's final, but urgent advice.

In other news meanwhile

20 years ago we could only guess whether or not we are alone in the Universe. Since then we've found not only other planets, but also some earth-sized, and in similar orbits to our. We sense oceans, lands and riches in mind-blowing configurations. The next step is to analyze the planets' atmospheres through the reflected light. In case of an earth-like world, this could reveal signs of life.

In a reality where thousands of extrasolar planets have been discovered only since 1995, we hail sub-orb tourist rides and fight for resupply- and satellite contracts. We look to scientists and defense for business while travel to Mars once again remains an "M" word that nobody will touch. (You can say it, but you can't really mean it.)

Based on the math of recent findings, there are possibly billions of planets like ours.

What does that knowledge do to me, an explorer? I pound the ground, I scream and shout. I curse and jump and spin to the sky - challenging and begging for some physical law to lift me up.

What does this profound discovery do to the commercial outfitters?

Not a lot.

What does it mean to NASA?

Commented NASA chief Charles Bolden the earth-like planets: "These discoveries underscore the importance of NASA's science missions."

Wrapping up

In unexpected situations people react with shock, denial, and finally acceptance. One year passed I sensed people in Colorado Springs slowly coming to terms with the new reality - whatever it is.

The budget has been reshuffled. It's a shake-down. The agency is being stripped. There has been a change in the order of the jungle.

Some of the monkeys foraging in them are new, but the liane tangles remain the usual. Unsurprisingly when I open my eyes, I see the same old trees. For all the hustle and bustle, I'm no closer to Space.

Once sharing my dream I'm sure, the private players are sidetracked. NASA in turn the eternal student who'll never leave campus.

No futile dreamers the ancient Vikings would teach their children, "Reach for the stars and win the roof". Even such grounded realists wouldn't say, "Reach for the roof and touch the sky." Chasing tourists, satellite contracts, government resupplies, science and education is not going to get us there.

There are plenty of ideas out there how to get to Mars, and we've had the tech for decades. It's not that we can't. It's that we don't want to. One day somebody will. Unless he steps up soon though, that person will be me.

After all, in each casino the biggest jackpot is still won at the slots.

Previous in this series:

ExWeb Space Roundup, Part 1: The (Suborb) Tourist
ExWeb Space Roundup, Part 2: The Big S
ExWeb Space Roundup, Part 3: The Iron Man
ExWeb Space Roundup, Part 4: Checking in

#Space #Opinion #topstory #feature

Some of the monkeys in the jungle are new, but the liane tangles remain the same, concludes Tina.
Image by Public library

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