Sunday, January 21, 2007

Money Backing the Private Space Industry... Part 1

While conversing with someone the other day I realized how little the common person knows about the private space industry. Sure, people have heard about Dennis Tito and Lance Bass paying an exorbitant amount of money to travel into space or even Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson's suborbital space tourism company. Beyond that, however, not much else is known. So, what kind of funding is behind this industry? Let's take an in-depth look:

Three billionaires alone are placing big bets on the future of space industry including the 6th richest man in the world: Paul Allen. Allen, who, according to Forbes, is worth more than $22 billion and admits to spending "in excess of $20 million" on SpaceShipOne, said he wouldn't be the sole investor in any space venture — although he might be willing to go in with someone else. Richard Branson, another multi-billionaire and founder of Virgin, hasn't specified the amount he is willing to spend but already has contracts in the works for a Virgin labeled SpaceShipTwo. Virgin Galactic plans to fly 500 passengers a year at about $200,000 each, to an altitude of slightly over 100 km.

Jeff Bezos, the 147th most affluent person in the world with a net worth of $4.3 billion and founder of Amazon.com, looks like a very promising backer. So far his company, Blue Origin, has been relatively quiet and has hardly made a rustle in the news but the company looks very serious. Blue Origin seems to be the biggest sleeper in my opinion and Jeff Bezos looks to be perhaps the most exciting prospect for the future of space. A source close to the Blue Origin group has said that the company has an ambitious 20 year plan:

They want to develop near-Earth space, not only from a tourism standpoint They see industry up there: space colonies, hotels, stuff like that. They want everything, not just ballistic trajectories.
Normally, this kind of talk would be considered an afterthought but when you realize the kind of money Bezos has and the kind of funding his money could bring with him things start to get interesting. Beyond the secrecy and the money behind the idea there is an interesting piece of Bezos' past that seems to solidify the seriousness and potential of this company:
In 1982, the high school valedictorian told The Miami Herald that he hoped to one day put space hotels, amusement parks, and yachts in orbit. Bezos biographer Robert Spector thinks his life goal is to "amass enough of a personal fortune to build his own space station." (courtesy wired.com)
Not only has Bezos accumulated a lot of money early (he is only 42), his net worth is still growing— and growing quickly. His net worth has almost tripled since 2003 (was worth $1.7 billion).

Even though Blue Origin is very secretive and has been more of a "think-tank" for most of its history it has produced some tangible progress. The New Shepard spacecraft has already undergone some initial test launches. The craft will eventually provide flights up to an altitude of 100km. To further substantiate Blue Origin's progressive attitude and genuine goals one need only look at their qualifications for employment:
"We are building real hardware, not PowerPoint presentations," said a job notice posted on the Blue Origin Web site in April, 2003. "You must have a genuine passion for space. Without passion, you will find what we're trying to do too difficult.

"There are much easier jobs."

Other than members of the billionaire club there are several other mega-rich people worth mentioning. Come back for part 2 to read more about them and the private space industry as a whole. As always questions and requests are invited. Be looking for part 2 soon!

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10 comments:

JackKennedy said...

Did Lance Bass go into space?

Pat said...

Ah, no he actually did not, sorry. Thanks for catching that though. Apparently, in 2002 he trained to be a cosmonaut and was going to travel aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft but funding fell through and thus he was never able to actually go to space.

He has been a relatively big promoter of space exploration however. Pretty good-- for a pop-star :).

Kevin said...

These guys sure are laying the foundation for the private industry, but I think it will be our generation that will be the ones that fully make space accessible to the non-elite class of people.

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I don't much about it. The thing that I know. It is that some companies develop technology and Nasa outsources some part of it.

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