Millionaires on the launch pad
After getting rich shaking up the PC, Internet, and videogame worlds, some well-known names hope to do the same for spaceflight.
(Business 2.0) - By now you'll know whether Elon Musk is the latest hero of the high frontier or still just the co-founder of PayPal. On Feb. 10, the day after this magazine went to press, Musk's latest company -- Space Exploration Technologies, based in El Segundo, Calif. -- was due to launch a 60,000-pound rocket, Falcon 1. Its task: Deliver a 43-pound U.S. Air Force satellite to geosynchronous orbit.
If the launch was successful (after two false starts in 2005), then Falcon 1 -- a reusable rocket with an impressive list of innovations among its specs -- is set to do two more commercial launches this year, or as many as Boeing. Not bad for an entrepreneur with no aerospace training.
Tech gurus in space
Musk, who spent $100 million developing Falcon 1, expects to drop another $100 million on its larger siblings, Falcons 5 and 9, the first new rocket designs in decades. He's already drummed up $200 million worth of contracts (half of that from the Air Force alone). So Musk barely had to dip into the hundreds of millions he got from selling PayPal to eBay (Research) for $1.5 billion.
Musk is part of a wave of successful tech gurus who are investing their own cash in attention-grabbing bids to get off the planet. But don't mistake these for vanity projects. Dismayed by NASA's glacial pace and fascinated by the technical challenges, the space geeks are betting they can do for orbital economics what they've already done for PCs, the Internet, and videogames. Now, after years of enigmatic press releases, they're readying their rockets. "We're entering the most exciting era in space since we reached the Moon," Musk says.
The cast of characters reads like a Who's Who of late-20th-century techdom. There's Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft (Research) who bankrolled the Ansari X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne. Amazon (Research) founder Jeff Bezos and John Carmack, the creator of Doom, both have private space ventures. Richard Garriott of Ultima Online fame and Larry Page of Google (Research) sit on the boards of space companies.
So far Musk's team is generating the most buzz. In three years SpaceX has expanded from a small group of entrepreneurial rocket enthusiasts to a company with 160 employees and plans for three different low-cost rockets. San Diego-based SpaceDev, which designed SpaceShipOne's rocket motor, has ordered three Falcons. Musk wanted to jump-start orbital travel by radically reducing the price of propelling mass into space. Built with the latest in avionics and materials, Musk's first rocket costs just $6.7 million to launch--way less than the $31 million for the comparable Pegasus system from Orbital Sciences.
The $4 billion commercial satellite business may be the most lucrative space venture right now, but it's not the only one. NASA is offering $40 million this year, and another $460 million by the end of the decade, to any company that can deliver cargo to the international space station. Musk's primary goal, however, is to deliver people. "We'll be making manned spaceflights before the end of the decade," he predicts.
Paul Allen's giant leap
Allen may get there first, thanks to his $24 million investment in Burt Rutan's company, Scaled Composites. And that's not Allen's only giant leap. In 2004 he donated $13.5 million to the Seti Institute in Mountain View, Calif., to build an advanced telescope to scan the skies for signs of life. Could a guy like Allen, the seventh-richest person on the planet, bankroll your space idea too? If the elevator pitch is good enough: Allen says he knew Rutan was worth funding after talking to him for five minutes.
Elsewhere in Seattle, Bezos is playing coy. After defying expectations with Amazon, he has quietly funneled millions of his own dollars into an ambitious startup called Blue Origin. Bezos, who talked about his desire to reach the stars during his high school valedictorian speech, has only once spoken publicly about the company. But Blue Origin has begun construction on a spaceport in West Texas. It also has a facility near Sea-Tac airport, making what is believed to be a fully reusable launch vehicle similar to the Pentagon's DC-X, with vertical takeoff and landing capability, for suborbital tourism. Test-launches are set to begin later this year.
Carmack is aiming for the suborbital tourism market too. In 2003 the man behind Doom and Quake put down millions of his own dollars to create Armadillo Aerospace, based in Mesquite, Texas. Armadillo's goal: computer-controlled liquid-oxygen rockets to launch people more than 300,000 feet above Earth, where they will experience weightlessness for a few brief minutes. Armadillo has successfully demonstrated a prototype. "Think of what we, and others, are doing as building the largest roller coaster in the world," Carmack says. "Rocket science is mythologized out of whack with its difficulty. Nine out of 10 people will fail, but one of us will eventually get through."
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From the March 1, 2006 issue