The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

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November 23, 2013

Space industry faces choice for next direction

MOJAVE, Calif. — MOJAVE, Calif. — The air is so clear the mountains in the distance look almost fake, as if added digitally. The desert floor is runway-flat, with a few Joshua trees popping up randomly, like lost cowboys. The dominant feature is the sky, preposterously vast, beckoning test pilots, rocketeers and would-be space travelers.

Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier near here in 1947. Neil Armstrong flew rocket planes. Tom Wolfe immortalized the Antelope Valley’s hard-drinking, sky-shattering aviation pioneers in his book “The Right Stuff.” The place is chockablock with history — and yet it’s the future that everyone’s buzzing about.

To hear the dreamers tell it, this is the next Silicon Valley. The Mojave Air and Space Port is the spiritual heart of the industry that people call “New Space.”

Old Space (and this is still the dreamers talking) is slow, bureaucratic, government-directed, completely top-down. Old Space is NASA, cautious and halting, supervising every project down to the last thousand-dollar widget. Old Space is Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman. Old Space coasts on the glory of the Apollo era and isn’t entirely sure what to do next.

New Space is the opposite of all that. It’s wild. It’s commercial, bootstrapping, imaginative, right up to the point of being (and this is no longer the dreamers talking) delusional.

Many of the New Space enterprises are still in the PowerPoint stage, with business models built around spaceships that haven’t yet gone to space. A bold attitude and good marketing aren’t enough to put a vehicle into orbit. The skeptics among the Old Space people will say to the upstarts: Where’s your rocket? How many times have you launched? Can you deliver reliably? Repeatedly? Safely? We put a man on the moon — what have you done?

If there’s one thing that New Space has going for it, it’s that Old Space is in trouble. Old Space and New Space turn out to be symbiotic. New Space companies need NASA contracts, and NASA needs New Space companies to pick up the agency’s slack.

The true believers imagine that, someday soon, robotic vehicles will mine asteroids for precious metals, including gold and platinum. Moon dirt will be transformed into rocket fuel for missions to Mars. Closer to home, FedEx will send a package from New York to Tokyo, via space, in half an hour.

Space tourism will be common, the believers insist. Maybe you will fly above the Arctic and see the aurora borealis from space. Tourism will eventually go lunar. “Tourists Walk on Moon” will blow up on Twitter one morning.

You can already buy a ticket on a spaceship. Mojave-based Virgin Galactic says that it will begin carrying passengers into space (the price recently jumped to $250,000 a seat) on suborbital flights in just a matter of months, with its flamboyant founder, Richard Branson, and members of his family along for the ride. The company’s vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, is kept out of sight in a hangar.

Next door, a company called XCOR Aerospace is assembling what it says will be a suborbital space vehicle, the Lynx.

“My life goal is to go to space,” said Jeremy Voigt, 26, an engineer. “I’m going to take care of that here at XCOR. Everybody in the company gets to fly.”

Earthlings vs. gravity is an enduring David vs. Goliath story. Human beings on the surface of Earth are at the bottom of a gravity well. To get anything out of that well and into even a Low Earth Orbit still costs upward of $5,000 per pound. It’s hard to come up with a reasonable business plan as long as launch costs are that high, which is why the government still dominates the space industry.

Another problem is that spaceflight has to work. The margin of error, between success and catastrophe, is minuscule. It’s not like the computer business, where you can deliver a product and work out the bugs later. As Jeff Greason, the chief executive of XCOR, puts it, “We’re not an industry that can ship the beta.”

This is why Elon Musk, the chief executive of SpaceX, said in a recent telephone interview that he’s “sweating” the launch, scheduled for Monday, of his Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla. It’s supposed to put a communications satellite into a high Earth orbit, but a lot of things have to go perfectly.

“The thing with the rocket is, the passing grade is 100 percent. You can’t issue a recall or do a patch,” Musk said. “You either get it all right or you’re screwed.”

 

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