Monday, December 19, 2011

Space: The Billionaires Playground

You've Really Made the Grade
Space exploration does not hold the public's imagination like it once did. There was a time when astronauts were larger than life figures, both pushing the limits of human technology and manning the front lines of the PR battles that helped win the Cold War. Everyone knew their names. Now even space buffs couldnt name more than a few of our modern Star Voyagers.

This lack of interest is especially evident now that the Space Shuttle program has ended, and fiscal realities prevent funding expensive, unproven designs. Space exploration seems a luxury these days.

Fortunately, where the government stops, private efforts have stepped in. To be sure, the space program of the 1960s and 1970s was perhaps the most successful example of a government conceived and funded idea. But much as the internet was created by Defense scientists, the Web's worth took off once in the hands of innovative entrepreneurs. So too will the future of space travel lie with ambitious visionaries. 

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk's SpaceX and now Paul Allen's Stratolaunch have all thrown their talents (and money) into the ring.

The Shape of Things to Come
One could make the argument that this transition from the government to private sector started with the Ansari X Prize, awarded to Scaled Composites in 2004.  A privately funded effort, the Ansari X Prize awarded $10 million to the first team to launch a spacecraft carrying three people 62 miles in the air twice in two weeks.  The X Prize was developed to emulate the financial incentives that helped jump start innovation in aviation during its nascent years in the early twentieth century.

More than 25 teams participated, and although only one team won, headed by Burt Rutan and funded by Paul Allen, the innovations that came out of the competition were nothing short of remarkable.  In fact, many of the teams are now formal companies developing technologies to be used in private space travel.  This is especially significant because nearly all of the competitors spent well beyond the $10 million given in prize money.  Sometimes publicity and a first-mover advantage is motivation enough. 

The X PRIZE foundation has not stopped at sub-orbital space flight.  The interest generated by the initial offering has led to other competitions.  Google is sponsoring a lunar challenge, Medco a genomics one, and Progressive an automotive efficiency competition.  Thus far, none of the challenges have found a winner, but the innovations that have come from failed competitors are still pronounced.

In an age where we still have many in the world living without running water, it may seem daft spending hundreds of millions of dollars to give millionaires the opportunity for a few minutes of weightlessness.  As with all technologies though, the benefits eventually find their way to the common man.

Worth it at Twice the Price
To be sure, regular space travel may be decades or even centuries off.  We may not be mining asteroids in our lifetime.  But the stars have always captured the imagination of our biggest dreamers, and little children who imagine adventures amidst the cold, harsh desolation of space.  We as a species have an inclination to explore, and whether the hobbies of billionaires, or the studied pursuit of mathematical genius, Space will, however subtly, hold our attention until we conquer it.

Until we do, I can't wait to see what crazy designs our innovators will come up with next, and how their fascination with leaving the earthly confines plays out.   

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