Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A commercial space race

Has it been four years already since Burt Rutan, backed by Paul Sperry of Microsoft and Richard Branson, the Virgin Atlantic guy, won the Ansari prize by getting an aircraft built by his company Scaled Composites into space and then doing it again within 30 days? Anyway, I went up to Mojave to see the final qualifying flight (joined by thousands of other enthusiasts). Saw Adrian Moore there and met a bunch of interesting people.

Having met Burt Rutan at a Reason event and talked with him at some length, I believe he is probably in fact thrilled that he now has some competition in the commercial space race (at least a dozen hopefuls had booths or exhibits at Burt Rutan's event). Xcor Aerospace, also of Mojave (it's a small airport, with almost no commercial flights, which may be attractive to innovators), has a space ship it expects to have ready to fly in two years. The Air Force has given the company a contract as well, to demonstrate the spacecraft's capabilities.

At least a half dozen other companies are designing space tourism vehicles, and even the FAA now thinks space tourism could be a !1 billion a year industry by 2021. I think it will happen faster than that. There's nothing like competition to spur innovation. As Burt Rutan has pointed out, the important thing is to get out there and start having fun, playing, experimenting. The Internet was available for years before people figured out what to do with it, and the process involved a lot of playing and just noodling around.

I think that having space be a government monopoly for all these years since the Apollo flights has retarded progress toward space travel. The space shuttle was like a giraffe -- a horse built by a committee -- and never especially promising. Now that it's becoming a commercial enterprise, I would be surprised if we don't see a lot more progress in space travel.

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