Space Entrepreneurs Wait for that 'Netscape Moment'

GOLDEN, Colo. -- From a newarray of space-enabled technologies to the emerging commercial market forpassenger space travel, the commercialization of next-generation spaceenterprises appears to be well under way. But challenges exist, industryofficials said, including making sure that entrepreneurial firms gain properfinancial footing and overcoming the legal, regulatory and insurance obstacles that could undermine the profit potential of the emerging commercial spaceindustry.

Steadyprogress was made this year on several fronts in the entrepreneurial spacesector. In 2008, that growth is expected to include even more advancedtechnology development, according to industry officials. Nevertheless, membersof the entrepreneurial space industry say more work is needed to assure thatinnovative space products and services are able to secure a profit-making nichein today?s economy.

Dull butgrowing roar

"I thinkwe?re seeing a rising tide of activities that are enabled by space," said BurkeFort, executive director of the Eighth Continent Project, based here at theColorado School of Mines. The project is an effort to help create newspace-oriented startup companies.

Forinstance, Fort said, location technology, space-based imaging, melded withsmall but highly integrated hand-held devices can have a big impact on avariety of markets.

"There?s anemerging 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 seeis a kind of dull but growing roar, labeling it a new era – Space 2.0 – ofcommercial development.

Fort saidthat with this emergent commercial space sector there should be an increase inthe number of aerospace-savvy support professionals, be they IntellectualProperty lawyers, risk managers or management consultants. This expertise canhelp support the small but growing number of entrepreneurial firms that arestarting to pop up, he said.

Fuelingan economic engine

"We needsome wins," said Peter Diamandis, chairman and chief executive officer of the XPrize Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif.

Those winsnext year, he said, might constitute a successful flight of the SpaceExploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Falcon 1 booster; possible rollout ofVirgin Galactic spaceliner hardware; demonstration flights of the Rocket RacingLeague?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 isto try and educate the financial communities – and the risk-taking community –to fuel an economic engine that yields true breakthroughs, Diamandis told SpaceNews Nov. 11 during Space Vision 2007, an event held at the MassachusettsInstitute of Technology in Cambridge, and sponsored by the Students for theExploration and Development of Space.

"The firsttime when these companies go public and return 20 times or 50 times the amountof money that was invested, that?s a key moment in time," Diamandis added."You had Spacehab and Orbital Sciences go public as pseudo-commercial spacecompanies. But they?ve been a flat stock price for 20 years. We really needsomeone to have a Netscape event," he said, pointing to the Initial PublicOffering response in the mid-1990?s of investment dollars into that Webbrowser.

Customerdemand

EstherDyson, who heads EDventure Holdings in New York, said in a Nov. 16 e-mailresponse to questions that greater funding for entrepreneurial space activitiesis likely to occur in 2008. "And at the same time, we?ll see progress inactually building and testing spacecraft and components," she said.

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

Dysonagreed that a "killer application" or "Netscape moment" would be just as validwithin the entrepreneurial space community.

"There?soften something that catches the popular imagination," Dyson said. This canoccur because of either public use or people seeing movie stars utilize it, asthe characters did in "You?ve Got Mail – the romantic comedy film released in1998 that chronicled the spreading use of e-mail,' she said.

In asimilar vein, Dyson said that perhaps "viral videos" stemming from next year?sflight to the International Space Station of Richard Garriott, a game developerand son of a former NASA astronaut, could boost public space travel interest. Aviral video is video content that escalates in popularity through Internete-mail messaging or media sharing Web sites.

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

Criticalpath

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

Themembership of the Personal Spaceflight Federation includes operators ofspaceships, spaceports and orbital spaceflight facilities. The group was organizedto promote the development of commercial human spaceflight, pursue ever-higherlevels of safety, and share best practices and expertise throughout theindustry.

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

Over thenext year in particular, Tai said, the Personal Spaceflight Federation intends tobuild upon the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, the legislationthat put the regulatory framework in place for commercial human spaceflight.

"We need tomake sure, as we become smarter, we know what some of the issues are and howthat legislation may or may not need to be changed" Tai said.

Technologicalreadiness

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

The Julyaccident in Mojave that occurred during engine component testing forSpaceShipTwo was a setback that still needs to be fully analyzed, Tai said. "Itwill go to market when it?s ready &ndash and not before," Tai said.

One of thebig steps forward for Virgin Galactic this year, Tai said, was the contract thecompany signed in August with the National Aerospace Training and Research Center in Southampton, Pa., to provide training for Virgin Galactic?s suborbital spacetravelers.

Making useof a high-tech centrifuge at the center, for example, customers can be taken ona simulated, but accurate, flight profile of a SpaceShipTwo suborbital hop, hesaid.

Tai saidVirgin Galactic has collected $31 million in deposits from future suborbitalspace travelers. "One of the shocks," Tai noted, "is that a lot of people justwant to go , and they don?t care what it?s like. They?ll go in a brown paperbag because they just want to go into space."

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

Have a news tip, correction or comment? Let us know at community@space.com.