Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Something different
Every now and again we'll be blogging on issues that go beyond our mandate of political, economic and cultural affairs. For my first such blog I intend to write about recent developments in Space.

I think it's true to say that for most people the mention of space conjures up images of NASA and the moon landings, Soyuz's, Mir's and the space shuttle and that to the extent that they think about it at all they assume that space is a matter that is best left in the hands of govt sponsored space agencies. This has certainly been true for most of the space age, the big programmes have all been funded by govts and even where private firms have built rockets with a view to making money they have usually done so on the back of govt funding. It's no surprise therefore that most space programmes are bloated, expensive and (in the case of NASA's shuttle) dangerous. More to the point, they have also been incredibly slow to make use of the many opportunities which space exploration presents. It is now 34 years since the Americans went to the moon and, I'm willing to bet, it will be at least another 20 before anybody goes back. And a return to the moon is a prerequisite for any mission to Mars.

Frustrated by this lack of progress, and convinced that the private sector could do better, a number of enthusiasts and interested parties have emerged over the last decade or so with the goal of trying to drive the process of space exploration forward. Foremost amongst these must be the XPRIZE Foundation. Founded about 10 years ago by Peter Diamandis the Foundation hopes to kick-start a new golden age of space activity by offering a prize of 10 million dollars to the first privately funded organisation able to send 3 people on a sub-orbital flight (around 100 km altitude), safely recover them and then repeat the whole process within a week. The prize is modelled on the Orteig Prize sponsored by the Washington Post for the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic. That competition (won by Charles Lindbergh in the 'Spirit of St Louis') is credited with boosting the prospects for regular passenger carrying trans-Atlantic flights by helping to prove the viability of the idea and, crucially, by firing up the publics imagination.

It's important to note that the XPRIZE Foundation stipulates that the winner must not have received any govt funding. Obviously NASA or the Russians could win the prize without raising a sweat, but as I have mentioned, the prize was born out of disillusionment with state-funded space programmes and their lack of innovation and daring. The prize, of 10 million dollars, is also sufficiently low as not to attract the attention of the big aerospace companies such as Boeing, Lockheed and BAE. Again, the idea is to encourage small firms, start ups and other enthusiasts who, through lack of access to large sources of development funds, will be forced to innovate and think outside the box. The XPRIZE has been running for about 9 years now and it seems likely that it will be won sometime in the next 12 months or so. Although there are over 20 registered teams, hailing from all over the globe there are now really only 4 teams in with a chance.

The first of these, and the team favoured to win, is Scaled Composites. SC, as they are referred to, came to prominence in the 1980s when they built, and successfully operated, Voyager, the first plane to fly non-stop and non-refuelled around the world. Their XPRIZE entry consists of two parts. The first operates as a conventional, if rather odd looking, aeroplane with the second being a small rocket ship which hitches a ride with the first before blasting off to the edges of space. SC is currently flight testing both elements of their entry and, regulatory issues permitting, hopes to win the prize sometime next year.

The second serious entry is that of Armadillo Aerospace based in Mesquite, Texas. Armadillo was founded and is funded by a man that many will be familiar with, John Carmack, creator of the Doom and Quake series of computer games. Armadillo's entry is a conventional three person rocket powered by Hydrogen Peroxide (the stuff that you clean contact lenses with) and their first flight is also planned for next year some time.

The third hopeful is the Canadian Arrow team from, yes, Canada. These guys have taken a rather novel approach to the prize by, essentially, scratch-building a World War 2 era V2 rocket. Instead of carrying an explosive warhead destined for London though, they'll be carrying 3 people to outer space. They've yet to fly a rocket, but they have an impressive looking demonstrator and they recently announced the names of their astronaut candidates to the public.

Finally, is Manchester, UK based Starchaser Industries. Starchaser has been around since the early 90s and has test flown a number of rockets including the largest ever launched in Britain and the largest privately funded rocket in Europe. They've just finished drop testing a one-man scale model of their XPRIZE entry capsule and are testing a 3 tonne rocket engine of their own design.

The financial incentives of the XPRIZE are, of course, a major incentive for would-be rocketeers, but they are not the only or even the most important. The real prize here is to build and operate a safe and, most importantly, cheap rocket, thus to be in a position to win a share of the burgeoning market for space tourists. A recent, and widely quoted, NASA study suggested that there are over 10 000 people in America alone prepared to pay 100 000 dollars for a 20 minute ride into space. That translates into a 10 billion dollar business and it is this new business opportunity that has really got people worked up. We've already had some glimpse of the market for this sort of thing with Mark Shuttleworth's 20 million dollar Soyuz flight and I think it's fair to say that there are a lot of people who'd pay a lot of money for the opportunity to go into space.

It is with these people in mind that a number of other, non-XPRIZE, firms have appeared over the past few years. Many of them are funded by dot-com millionaires who, as a group, have lots of money and, seemingly, lots of imagination. Jeff Bezos of Amazon.Com fame is rumoured to have founded a company called Blue Origin with the intention of winning control of the market for Space Tourism. Another is former South Africa, Elon Musk who made his millions founding PayPal and has used some of that money to found SpaceX a company dedicated to lowering, "by an order of magnitude" the costs of launching satellites into space. Rumours also abound that Paul Allen of Microsoft is involved in a secret project to launch people into space. What's important about these individuals is that they've all demonstrated the ability to achieve great things in business once and there is no reason to think that they won't do it again. It also can't harm matters that they all have millions lying around waiting to be used.

The next decade promises to be an exciting time for those of us with an interest in space. By 2014 it seems likely that sub-orbital space flights will be the thing on every little boy's (and a few men) wish list. And before we discount those old state sponsored dinosaurs, the net abounds with rumours that George Bush is going to use the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers first flight to announce that the US will return to the moon. You heard it here first...

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