Billionaires back ambitious space projects

10:37 AM, May 10, 2012   |    comments
By 2020, low-cost spacecraft would be sent to extract water and precious metals from selected asteroid targets, said Peter Diamandis, one of the founders of Planetary Resources Inc. The water would be a commodity for propellant depots in low Earth orbit. There is a global market for precious metals. Artist's rendering.
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By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY

The "right stuff" for space exploration? It may be a few billion bucks.

A new era in space exploration, the billionaire age, seems to have dawned.

Consider:

•The SpaceX ship scheduled to launch May 19 from Cape Canaveral as the first privately financed cargo delivery vehicle to the International Space Station is powered not only by liquid fuel but by millions from PayPal mogul Elon Musk.

•Paul Allen, billionaire Microsoft co-founder, announced last year that his Stratolaunch Systems firm would build a jet with a 385-foot wingspan - longer than a football field - to launch light rockets from high altitudes into space. Allen funded aerospace designer Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.

•Last month, X Prize foundation chief Peter Diamandis announced that Bellevue, Wash., start-up Planetary Resources plans to put vehicles into space to capture and mine minerals from near-Earth asteroids in about a decade. Its financiers hail from the ranks of America's superwealthy, including Google tycoons Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, film director James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar) and Ross Perot Jr., the real-estate-developer son of the onetime presidential candidate.

"We're now seeing a new generation of (hundred)-millionaires and billionaires who are interested in space," space entrepreneur Diamandis says. "This is smart money investing in one of the largest commercial opportunities ever: going to space to gain resources for the benefit of humanity."

Each venture still faces hurdles. For example, economists and natural resources experts are skeptical that rail cars full of space platinum make sense as a business. "The required loads of space shipping would be unprecedented if asteroid mining is going to operate commercially," says Chi-Jen Yang of Duke University's Center on Global Change.

Historian Roger Launius of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., notes that wealthy adventurers such as Howard Hughes helped pioneer the airline industry in the last century, and longer ago, tycoons such as John Rockefeller and Henry Ford created the oil and auto industries, respectively. Diamandis compares today's space tycoons to New World explorers such as Magellan.

Is this a return of conquistador capitalism? Or have this era's ultra-rich just found the highest-altitude way to lose their shirts since Icarus had his wings clipped?

"There have always been visionaries and dreamers attracted to space, but never deep-pocketed ones, until now," says space policy expert John Logsdon of George Washington University. "Clearly, there is a fascination with space and some calculations about how this could all work that makes this attractive to some very smart and wealthy people."

NASA also is supporting exploration of asteroids and private rockets, spurs to the eventual commercialization of space. The space agency has paid SpaceX $381 million as it developed its Dragon cargo vehicle.

"I don't think it is fair to lump SpaceX in with the more aspirational efforts," Logsdon says. "SpaceX is doing real things and has launched a number of rockets, taken a very practical approach."

The SpaceX test launch "will be a symbolic milestone," Logsdon says.

Musk is cautious about the test berthing of his team's cargo capsule to the space station. "There is a lot that can go wrong," Musk says. After a successful launch, several "tricky" checkout days will follow in space before the space station's robot arm will get the go-ahead to latch onto the cargo capsule.

Twice delayed, a successful mission would bolster hopes that SpaceX could send astronauts to the space station sooner rather than later. "We're optimistic that Dragon will be carrying astronauts," Musk says, perhaps within three years.

"It's exciting, the enthusiasm for private ventures in space is amazing," says Lou Friedman, head of the Planetary Society, a space exploration advocacy group. "At the same time, there has to be real plans ... that provide a viable business plan," he cautions.

Along with its billionaire backing, Planetary Resources' chief engineer Chris Lewicki last year received a $124,960 development contract from NASA, aimed at developing a small telescope spacecraft to map asteroids worth mining.
Diamandis says the start-up's backers have outsize patience and tolerance for risk.

"I do admire the entrepreneurs who are trying to do it," Yang says, but he cautions that the history of technological innovations shows "costs are typically underestimated in (the) early stage of development. In most cases, the greater the technological advance involved, the larger the extent of underestimation."

USA TODAY

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