Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Busy Times

My updates have not been as frequent as much as I would like them to be but rest assured, it is not from a lack of material. January has been a very busy month for me and thus it has been difficult for me to find time to post. Next week is looking more promising and should allow me plenty of time to post. Be looking for some new articles next week and, as always, any questions, comments, or suggestions are welcomed and encouraged!

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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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Monday, January 15, 2007

Space Elevators: A Future I can Envision.. Part 2

A Space Elevator (see original post...) seems pretty glamorous and looks to have lots of potential, but what exactly is that potential? A Space Elevator could provide a safe, consistent, and cheaper method of bringing cargo to space. This is the key to its limitless potential. With space easily accessible, permanent settlements could be established and always have supplies on demand. Expanding out towards the asteroid belt could also mean the start of outer-space mining operations. Gigantic solar satellites could also send enormous amounts of energy back to Earth and other satellites could increase communication abilities on earth.

Concept art of a space elevator. Source: CelestialMotherlode
One potential use or derivative of a space elevator that I thought of but haven't heard anything about is a construction site. Things can be manufactured in space with less difficulty than they can on Earth. Micro-gravity lets very heavy objects to be reasonably maneuvered. Enormous cargo ships could be put together quickly and easily. Such ships couldn't even feasibly be made on Earth and sent to space. The micro-gravity presents another interesting advantage too. Designs of such ships would not need to be able to hold themselves up. Without any gravity putting pressure on it, designs wouldn't need to be as sturdy and without an atmosphere aerodynamics is useless. Now, a fleet of huge cargo ships could be quickly and cheaply put together. Distributing materials also becomes even more efficient than with the space elevator alone. Since the cargo ships need not escape a planets atmosphere it will never require large amounts of fuel to transport goods. All it would need is one boost towards its destination and one back. Materials/people could be carried by these cargo ships/shuttles and simply be "dropped off at the door." Re-entry vehicles released by the cargo ships could release goods in similar fashion to the current Mars rovers' method. As you can see a space elevator could be the catalyst for an interplanetary highway.


The economics of a space elevator is also interesting. Currently the price/kg to send something into geosynchronous orbit is about $20,000/kg. According to Dr. Bradley Edwards, who has put forth a space elevator design, the price would drastically reduce to around $220/kg.

Costs of Edwards design (mentioned in part 1) has been estimated at $40 billion. In order for the design to be privately funded a $6 billion annual revenue would be needed and 2 million kg/year would be lifted into space. A cheaper estimate for another design was proposed at the 55th International Astronautical Congress in Vancouver in October 2004. The sticker price was a mere $6.2 billion. $6.2 billion may still sound extraordinary but when comparing that to the costs of bridges, skyscrapers, and other large projects it starts to look a lot more enticing.

Personally, I believe that the space elevator concept is pretty far-fetched but, then again, so was walking on the moon at one time. I can't say the space elevator will lead humans into a space-colonization age but I can say that it is a very worthy idea to consider.

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