Private Ventures—Dawn of a New Space Era

I grew up on the northern fringe of Los Angeles County. Sonic booms from Edwards AFB were common. My father worked in the defense/aerospace industry, as did my oldest brother.

Buzz Aldrin stands on moon surface with US flag during Apollo 11 mission.
Buzz Aldrin stands on moon surface with US flag during Apollo 11 mission.

Many of you may think Hollywood built Los Angeles, but the truth is aerospace did, before the Cold War ended and most of the jobs disappeared.

Yet there is a new energy returning to California's space industry. At Elon Musk's SpaceX in Los Angeles, young engineers, programmers and designers who look straight out of Silicon Valley are building rockets and space capsules. Almost all of it is being created from scratch.

"Innovation tends to be caused by new entrants into a field," Musk told me last year. "When there aren't new entrants to a field, innovation tends to really grind to a halt."

Up near Edwards, at the Mojave Spaceport, companies like XCOR are building their own private passenger and cargo craft with plans to pick up where NASA owned craft are now leaving off.

"If nothing goes wrong, I would hope that we would see the flight test program starting sometime late next year," CEO Jeff Greason said.

It's only a stone's throw from XCOR to Scaled Composites, where Burt Rutan designed the suborbital spacecraft for Paul Allen, which won the Ansari Xprize and became the basis for Richard Branson's new Virgin Galactic space tourism business. Two very rich guys who turned to Rutan to make their dreams come true.

"I had a meeting with both Richard Branson and Paul Allen at my house," Rutan told me in 2008. "I asked them...'What do you want to see happen before you die?"

He said he and Paul Allen agreed to fund SpaceShipOne on a handshake. "He realized, as I did, that to meet these long term goals is not to do a government program where you have a very few, expensive flights every year, and things never mature, so they're never safe."

But Branson has relocated Virgin Galactic to Spaceport America, an alien-looking structure worthy of Area 51 that is rising out of the Southwest desert of New Mexico to be the first spaceport built specifically for commercial use.

"We hope to wrap things up around November, December of this year," said Spaceport America's Christine Anderson of the facility built with $209 million in voter-approved bonds. The spaceport has already hosted 13 vertical launches for commercial entities. "We believe we'll be able to be self-sustaining around 2013, 2014, which is about the time the bonds expire."

The challenge, of course, is for at least some of these ventures to work—to take cargo and people there and back again safely, reliably and affordably. Branson's Virgin Galactic hopes to start flying some of the 400 people who've paid $200,000 apiece this year, but that may not happen.

SpaceX had a successful launch and recovery of a spacecraft last December, but sending astronauts to the International Space Station may be three years away. Even the Google Lunar Xprize—$30 million for private teams who can get a rover to the Moon—has extended its 2012 deadline to 2015 .

"I think this era is comparable to the period of aviation either right before or right after Lindbergh's flight in the 1920s," said XCOR's Jeff Greason.

Charles Lindbergh came on the scene after the Wright Brothers, who proved flight was possible, and after World War I, when the government funded aviation. His historic flight across the Atlantic ushered in the next phase—commercial aviation.

Of all the new space race ventures in the works, SpaceX is the furthest along. Musk said the company has spent $800 million but landed over $3 billion in contracts, half from NASA. "I just find the idea of a future where we're not a spacefaring civilization to be very depressing," Musk told me with a laugh. "I think, 'How sad is that?' and how contrary to the American spirit."

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