Dotcom billionaires lead new space race

Entrepreneurs building a new generation of rockets are privatising the space race, writes Robin McKie

Many believe the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, seen here at Cape Canaveral, will be the saviour of the US space programme after the Obama Administration signalled an end to funding. Photo / Supplied
Many believe the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, seen here at Cape Canaveral, will be the saviour of the US space programme after the Obama Administration signalled an end to funding. Photo / Supplied

For the past few weeks, engineers have been carrying out detailed tests on a pencil-slim rocket sitting on launch pad 40 at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

In a few days the team will leave the site and begin final preparations for the 54m launcher's blast-off.

Rocket take-offs are not exactly rare at the space centre, of course.

Yet the launch of Falcon 9 will be followed with extreme interest. Many believe its success could transform space travel and save America's space programme from oblivion; others have dismissed the flight as dangerous "cure-all hype".

The launch of Falcon 9 is controversial for a simple reason: its design and construction have been carried out by private enterprise.

The rocket is the idea of SpaceX, the company established by South African dotcom entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Angered by the price he was being asked to put a payload into space, Musk, 38, decided to transform the launch business and so designed the Falcon.

If he succeeds, companies like SpaceX could be running deliveries and taxi rides for astronauts within a few years, he believes.

"Our success is vital to the success of the US space programme," Musk said last week.

His confidence has been boosted following last month's decision by President Barack Obama to drop funding for the Constellation programme - the Nasa spacecraft intended to replace the space shuttle, which is to be grounded later this year.

Instead, Obama called for the space agency to invest around US$6 billion ($8.5 billion) over the next five years in private launch companies such as SpaceX. Space travel is being privatised - it's as simple as that.

But who are the entrepreneurs with such ambitious designs on the space industry? What motivates them? And what sort of vision do they have for space travel in the 21st century? The answers to these questions are quite unexpected.

Each has made his fortune outside the industry, almost invariably in the dotcom bubble with internet and computer game firms.

In other words, these space visionaries have made vast sums fulfilling adolescent dreams of hi-tech adventure and are now using the proceeds to fund the real thing.

A classic example is Musk, one of the creators of, and the largest shareholder in, PayPal, which was sold to eBay in 2002 for US$1.5 billion.

Similarly, John Carmack used his fortune as co-founder of id Software and programmer of Doom, Quake, and other computer games to set up Armadillo Aerospace, which is developing space launchers designed to be capable of sub-orbital, and later full orbital, space flights.

Then there is the company Blue Origin, currently developing its New Shepard launcher, which was founded by the president, chief executive and chairman of Amazon, Jeff Bezos.

In addition, Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft, provided some of the backing that helped Burt Rutan develop his revolutionary spaceplanes for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.

"You had to have some kind of pre-boom to supply the capital investment to kick off the rocket boom, and that only happened with computers and the internet," says Musk.

They make a colourful group.

But it is Musk - with his fiancee Talulah Riley, the British actor who has appeared in films such as St Trinian's and The Boat That Rocked - who remains the most distinctive face of this new space race. His wealth, glamorous life and industrial might make headlines in the US.

He has even served as a model for the big-screen reinvention of Marvel superhero Tony Stark, the industrialist-turned-superhero of the Iron Man series.

The SpaceX factory appears in the second film, Iron Man 2, while Musk has a bit part in the film. Today there is a statue of Iron Man, wearing a SpaceX ID badge, near Musk's office in the headquarters of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation - SpaceX's full name - in Los Angeles.

Musk's interest in space launches also has unusual roots. At first he wanted to send a small greenhouse to Mars - a private experiment designed to see if Earth plants could grow in Martian soil.

The experiment could be done for a few million dollars, he realised, but when he looked at the cost of the launch, he discovered the price tag was a prohibitive US$65 million.

So he decided to build his own rockets. These will use Merlin engines, designed at SpaceX, that Musk claims cost a quarter as much as traditional rocket engines.

The company has not been without setbacks, however. Falcon 9's predecessor, Falcon 1, suffered three failures before it achieved a successful sub-orbital flight.

Now it is the turn of its successor - the craft that Musk and Nasa plan to use to supply the international space station with cargo in the very near future.

If all goes well, these flights could begin before the end of the year.

If things go wrong, Musk - who says he has invested more than US$100 million - claims the company can face four failures of Falcon 9 before having serious problems on its hands.

At the same time he has made it clear that he wants to turn the Falcon into a craft capable of carrying humans into orbit - providing Nasa with a space taxi service for its astronauts, freeing the agency to develop and launch more far-reaching missions to the outer solar system or to build ambitious orbiting telescopes.

How much money the operators of these space taxis will make is a different matter. Nasa has given out some lucrative contracts: SpaceX will be given US$1.6 billion to supply the international space station with cargo using the Falcon 9 as transport, for example.

Similarly, Blue Origin has been awarded US$3.7 million by Nasa to develop hardware.

But the costs of spacecraft development are enormous and its financial prospects have yet to be demonstrated.

The new wave of entrepreneurs may find the billions they have made in computers and the internet swallowed up by their efforts to reach the stars - a point stressed by Elliot Pulham, chief executive of the Space Foundation, an organisation which represents all sectors of the industry.

"There is a motto in this trade," he says. "If you want to make a million dollars in the space business, first earn a billion dollars in another industry."

Nevertheless, Musk and the rest remain convinced they will slash launch costs in the same way as private industry has been making revolutionary reductions in computing costs since the 1980s. Space will be opened to a new line of business users in the process, they insist.

Not everyone agrees: Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama - home of the Marshall Space Flight Centre, which had been leading the Constellation programme's development - recently described the move towards private space launches as "a death march".

He believes SpaceX and its sister companies lack the expertise to put cargo, and later humans, into orbit, and that America will end up without any means to put people or hardware into space.

"I think there is a point here," says Pulham. "It is clear that private launch companies have a real role to play in transforming space travel, but it is also true that too much is being asked of them ... They do not have the expertise at present to do this extremely taxing job and it will take a while for them to be completely successful."

The launch of Falcon 9 is therefore going to be an event of considerable interest for politicians and engineers.

Over the past 40 years, US spending on space has slumped from almost 5 per cent of the federal budget to around 0.5 per cent and there is desperation in the industry for reinvigoration and a return to the glory days of the Apollo missions.

The US space programme needs evidence that it is about to take a dramatic new direction in space travel: a success for Elon Musk and Falcon 9 could provide that signal.

- OBSERVER

ROCKETMAN'S RELENTLESS RISE

Born in South Africa, Elon Musk's career path has been on a sharp trajectory since he quit high school to avoid compulsory military service.

He was quoted saying he that "suppressing black people just didn't seem like a really good way to spend time".

At 17 he moved to Canada before heading to university in the United States.

Four companies bear his entrepreneurial stamp.

His first, Zip2, was founded with his brother Kimbal.

Drawing on Musk's computer skills, the firm provided online software for news organisations.

In March 1999, Musk co-founded X.com, an online financial services and email payments company, which eventually became the successful PayPal.

In June 2002, Musk established Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), with an emphasis on low cost and high reliability.

The first test firing of the Falcon 9 rocket this month was aborted.

The second, two days later, was a success.

In 2004, Musk helped launch Telsa Motors, to produce fast, affordable electric cars.

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