Ben Bova: Space, finally, becoming free-enterprise frontier

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Last Sunday marked the 52nd anniversary of the first artificial satellite. Russia’s Sputnik I surprised the world and opened the Space Age.

Most of the world’s space programs have been run by national governments, although there is a healthy private industry in the satellite-launching business that grosses more than a billion dollars per year, worldwide. Most of the private launches have been to place communications satellites into orbit.

For many years, private entrepreneurs have struggled to create a wider, more diverse and more profitable space-launching industry. Many see the business of carrying tourists into space as a potential multibillion-dollar opportunity.

Designer Burt Rutan and business magnate Richard Branson formed Virgin Galactic to take tourists on suborbital flights up to an altitude of about 68 miles, where the passengers will experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Ticket price is $200,000, but that is expected to come down as the market grows over time.

Even at that price, though, Virgin Galactic already has $40 million in deposits from prospective customers, and expects a total income of $60 million from 300 suborbital flights. An investment group from Abu Dhabi is committed to buying a 32 percent share of the company for $280 million.

Virgin Galactic is working with the government of New Mexico to build a spaceport near White Sands, and plans to build another such facility in Abu Dhabi.

But tourism isn’t the only business beckoning space entrepreneurs. NASA, universities and private research outfits are looking for launchers to put relatively small scientific payloads into space. Ultimately, Virgin Galactic intends to carry people and payloads all the way into orbit.

Other companies are pursuing such ambitions as well. Most of these companies will eventually fail; that’s one of the hazards of free enterprise. But those that succeed could become giant corporations on the scale of Lockheed Martin or Boeing.

One of the keys to the future of private space companies is the International Space Station. Roundly denounced as a $100 billion boondoggle by some politicians and pundits, the ISS is now complete and available for a wide range of scientific and industrial research programs.

The joker in the pack is that the United States won’t have any way of getting to the ISS after the year 2010. That’s when NASA’s space shuttle fleet is due to be retired, after nearly 30 years of service. Without the space shuttle, NASA has no way of sending people or cargo to the ISS.

While the space shuttle’s operational lifetime may be extended a year or two beyond 2010, eventually the U.S. will have to depend on Russian and other foreign spacecraft to use the ISS. Unless private enterprise can step in and save the day.

NASA has awarded contracts worth some $3.5 billion to Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp. to deliver cargo to the ISS. However, as yet neither company has successfully flown a launcher capable of the task.

NASA also awarded $500 million in seed money to help Orbital and SpaceX Corp. develop new launch vehicles, under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.

So the situation is this: Private entrepreneurs need a reliable market to raise the capital they need to develop the launchers and spacecraft that will make private space operations profitable. Tourism is one market area they are pursuing, but ferrying cargoes and personnel to the International Space Station is another, and perhaps more dependable, market.

Launching satellites into orbit and smaller payloads into suborbital flight is already a viable industry, although it is far smaller and less profitable than orbital operations.

Will we see a movement away from the virtual monopoly that national governments have on space operations, a movement toward private space industry? The obstacles are many, including government regulations regarding safety. A single crash of a private launcher carrying people could ruin the industry for many years.

For years, space enthusiasts have been urging that we unleash the tremendous economic forces of private enterprise and change the basic way we operate in space. Orbital hotels, industrial laboratories, even (eventually) low-gravity retirement centers are possible.

Will we see a burgeoning private space industry by Sputnik’s 55th anniversary? Maybe!

Naples resident Ben Bova is the author of more than 120 books, including “The Return,” his latest futuristic novel. Bova’s Web site address is www.benbova.com.

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