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The Space Cowboys

18 minute read
Cathy Booth Thomas/Necker Island

This is, without a doubt, the sexiest setting ever for a meeting of aspiring astronauts: under swaying palm trees on the beach of a private island owned by Richard Branson in the British Virgin Islands. It is the week after Thanksgiving, and Branson is playing host to a “galactic get-together” on Necker Island. Beer and wine are being consumed like so much rocket fuel. Sushi floats in on a boat–to the middle of the pool. (Swimsuits required!) There’s a casino party one night, a tennis tourney in the pouring rain and golf off the top deck of Branson’s Balinese-inspired house on the hill–which you can do when you own the whole joint.

NASA’s astronauts have buzz cuts and aeronautics degrees. But this group made its money in hedge funds and Internet ventures. There are babes too, barefoot and bikini clad, millionaires in their own right. Everyone is sitting in a circle on low beach chairs, wiggling toes in the white sand while debating the wisdom of getting into a centrifuge to test vomit potential at the high G-forces needed to soar into space. That’s when the merry prankster himself, Sir Richard–master of Virgin Air, Virgin Records, Virgin stem cells, Virgin everything if he had his way–shows up and starts talking about sex in space. A vision of weightless gymnastics at zero G and intricate human docking maneuvers dances briefly in everyone’s head. “Of course, if you want to get naked, someone might find out,” warns Sir Richard, displaying a wolfish grin.

Welcome to the prelaunch program of Virgin Galactic, which hopes to be the world’s first private spaceline, with liftoff by 2009. The adventure-addicted British entrepreneur says that over its first 10 years Virgin Galactic will send 50,000 civilians on a thrill ride more than 62 miles (100 km) up into space–to escape gravity and ogle our small fragile planet. Initial cost for the two-hour adventure? $200,000.

While Branson was hitting the beach with future passengers, his competitors– smart, rich and innovative like him–were busily at work plotting to beat him into space. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos just tested his first prototype for personal space travel in West Texas. John Carmack, co-creator of the Doom and Quake games, is test-firing rockets for the next generation of spaceliners and lunar landers near Dallas. In California, Jim Benson, founder of Compusearch, is developing a space taxi with a motor that runs on rubber and laughing gas. (Don’t laugh. It works.) PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, who has a NASA contract to build a robotic Pony Express to the International Space Station (ISS), is pouring his own millions into a ship for galactic travelers at his factory south of Los Angeles. Robert Bigelow, founder of Budget Suites of America, already has a small-scale, inflatable space station–hotel in orbit, an outgrowth of his curiosity about UFOs. New Mexico wants to become the Cape Canaveral of space tourism, but six other proposed spaceports across the country are vying for business too. There’s even an Orbital Outfitters store to provide space suits for civilians–whether portly or petite.

Ever since Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961, NASA has controlled our mission in space. It became a sacred place, untouchable, a museum open only to select government employees. Fewer than 500 people have reached space since Shepard; Branson plans to double that number in Galactic’s first year. NASA’s idea of progress is to return to the moon, nearly a half-century later. Last year the agency spent nearly $5 billion sending highly trained astronauts to the ISS, largely to ferry supplies and fix the AC and other sputtering plumbing. The new generation of entrepreneurs is betting it can do what NASA does–only better and cheaper, with cushier seats and cool views for paying customers.

Far from fighting these space invaders, NASA is pushing such ideas as FedEx–like service to lunar outposts, private fueling stations in orbit and space tourism. “We’re entering a renaissance period of space exploration,” NASA administrator Michael Griffin said in January. Like the Renaissance, he said, wealthy entrepreneurs will–in fact, must–take the lead in commercializing technology.

Many NASA critics take it further. The agency’s role, they say, should be to explore the far reaches of the universe by roving robot, leaving Earth’s orbit and the moon to the private sector. “We’re in this transition zone, where the Lewis and Clark role of NASA has been done on the human side,” says space activist and rabble rouser Rick Tumlinson, founder of Orbital Outfitters. “Now it’s time for the settlers and shopkeepers to move in.”

The hyperentrepreneurial Branson, 56, has an unlimited appetite for outlandish promotional stunts, but launching the space-tourism industry with him on board the first Virgin Galactic flight would be tough to top. He is so confident, he plans to take his two kids, his 91-year-old dad and his 88-year-old mother with him. A Virgin Galactic prototype is taking shape on a hangar floor in California’s Mojave Desert. New Mexico is negotiating leases with Virgin for its proposed spaceport, where space tourists could do some preflight vacationing. Designer Philippe Starck has been retained to add chic to Virgin Galactic plane interiors, hotels and spaceports. And despite the ticket price, sales are already closed for the first group of 100 passengers, called the Founders. “I’m absolutely sure that millions of people want to go into space,” says Branson, “and it’s up to us to make it affordable for those people.”

His success depends on Burt Rutan, a brilliant if iconoclastic aircraftmaker whose unconventional designs can be found in everything from Predator drones to do-it-yourself airplane kits. Rutan’s $26 million SpaceShipOne proved in 2004 that a privately built vehicle could reach the edge of space and do it twice in five days safely. The plane, bankrolled by former Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, won the $10 million Ansari X Prize (sponsored by a foundation seeking radical breakthroughs in space travel) that year and removed, once and for all, what Carmack calls the “giggle factor” in private spaceflight. “This is real. We’re not dreaming anymore,” Branson says, all signs of his Necker Island playfulness gone. “You could argue,” he says, taking a swipe at NASA, “that we’ve wasted 50 years.”

In 2005 he and Rutan formed the Spaceship Company–a Boeing for the new space age–with Virgin placing orders for the first 12 ships. Branson is betting $250 million just to get Virgin Galactic started. Rutan plans to build at least 40 spaceships and expects to be run ragged by other clients. “I know this is an interim step,” says Rutan, 63. “Fifteen years from now, every kid will know he can go to orbit in his lifetime.”

Most of Branson’s competitors are intent on rocketing right off the launchpad. But Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo flies in lazy circles up to 50,000 ft.–spy-plane territory–attached to a huge turbojet launch plane. Then SpaceShipTwo drops away and rockets off into space at 3,500 m.p.h. on its laughing-gas engine. Aboard the spaceship the two pilots will cut the rockets and the ship will coast up to 80 miles, well outside the atmosphere. For 4 min., the six passengers (now astronauts!) can unstrap and float weightless around the cabin. Earth will look like a shiny ball with white swirls surrounded by a totally black sky. Diving back into the atmosphere will be a wild ride, peaking at nearly 6 Gs–twice the rush you feel on the average roller coaster. Rutan’s genius is his “carefree re-entry” design: SpaceShipTwo folds up its wings for re-entry then transforms into a conventional glider for a gentle slide home to the runway.

On Necker Island, Branson gathered some of the Founders to meet Rutan and chat about spaceship design, safety issues and preparation possibilities for the G-forces and sensory overload of a first-time astronaut–like how to puke in space. They debated who would be the first paying customers. The hedge-fund honcho from California? The Internet couple from England? The hot German babe in the bikini? Or the guy from New Zealand who changed his family name to Rocket? Physicist Stephen Hawking, who believes that mankind must colonize space, sent word that he wants in–which would allow him to slip the earthly confines of his wheelchair. One of the royals (Prince Harry, Princess Beatrice?) is a possible passenger, not to mention publicity bonanza. Pilot Alex Tai, Galactic’s chief of operations, claims that the market–even at $200,000 a shot–is huge, with 8 million millionaires worldwide, a couple of whom have already spent $20 million each to fly with the Russians. Branson wants to keep bringing the price down, so middle-class families can vacation in the ether. By year two, deposits will be down to $20,000, says Tai, heralding “the democratization of space.”

And the beginning of market competition. The Benson Space Co. is developing the Dream Chaser space taxi–a “cute little sports-car-like spaceship” that seats six and has rocket motors in the trunk. It harks back to a design developed by the Soviets for space-shuttle runs but adds an innovation: the same hybrid motor used by SpaceShipOne to win the X Prize in 2004–laughing gas shot through rubber. In comparison, the spaceship being developed in great secrecy by Bezos’ Blue Origin looks like a lopped-off nose cone. The three-seater, fueled by hydrogen peroxide (yup, the common household disinfectant, though in a highly purified form, with a touch of kerosene) appears based on an old Delta Clipper design done for NASA. Musk’s SpaceX designers favor the NASA look too–of old Apollo capsules–but that translates into ocean splashdowns.

The oddest-looking suborbital ride, however, is by John Carmack, who is building podlike contraptions that sometimes land on all fours. Sometimes not. The Pixel, made for one, is a platform atop four tanks of fuel (liquid oxygen and ethanol). He’s not strapping anyone in yet, right? “Funny you should say that,” he says, picking up a motorcycle saddle at his Armadillo Aerospace shop one evening. “It goes on top of the electronic box over here. We did a parking-lot flight a couple of years ago and roughed up one of our earlier vehicles.” Not to worry, he says jokingly: there will be a glass top over the saddle seat. At least he sounded as if he was joking. Pixel has made more than 30 unmanned test flights and could begin carrying commercial payloads next year.

Musk and Carmack represent the opposite extremes of the business. Musk already has a working business, operating SpaceX since 2002 out of a warren of old repair shops and warehouses in El Segundo, Calif., an area with a long aerospace history. He plans to move soon to nearby Hawthorne, into a cavernous plant that once turned out 747s. He has set aside half of his $200 million PayPal payout and has hired close to 250 people, from such outfits as Boeing and Grumman as well as from Silicon Valley.

While most of his competitors have shunned the bureaucratic NASA, he bid for and won a $278 million NASA contract to develop a delivery service to the ISS. For Musk, 35, space travel is a childhood dream, not just for exploration but as a logical next stage in man’s evolution from the primordial goop. “To our knowledge, life exists on only one planet, Earth. If something bad happens, it’s gone,” he says. “I think we should establish life on another planet–Mars in particular–but we’re not making very good progress. SpaceX is intended to make that happen.”

In contrast, Carmack, 36, says he is just a computer guy who got bored and taught himself rocket science. Yet in aerospace circles, the gamer and head of id Software is respected for doing results-oriented rocketry work on little dime. His shop in a suburban Dallas business complex looks like something out of Star Wars–Watto’s junk shop on Tatooine, to be precise. Carmack takes you first to see his graveyard of old projects to explain his philosophy: Fly a whole lot, and learn where the gotchas are. He admits that he would like to go to the moon someday, but he doesn’t waste his time dreaming. “It’s pointless and a distraction. You get people with stars in their eyes looking at ways to conquer the solar system,” he says. “I spend more time worrying about which part I have to make next.”

The man with the most secretive business plan is Amazon boss Bezos, who launched his Seattle-based Blue Origin in 2000 and started buying up a huge swath of land in West Texas near Van Horn, arousing the suspicions of locals. Bezos plans to build a spaceport and aerospace testing center at the desert site but is taking it “slow and steady.” (His company motto is Gradatim ferociter, which roughly translated means “Step by step, fiercely.”) It’s unclear how much funding Bezos, 43, is putting into the venture, but he has been doing it the NASA way, spending huge amounts of money to hire engineering Ph.D.s.

In January he lifted the veil somewhat, releasing a video of the first test flight last November–a cozy affair on his ranch, with a Jumbotron for the spectators, a bouncy castle for the kids and a chuck wagon. The scaled-down prototype flew up 285 ft.–and 30 sec. later landed successfully. “My only job at the launch was to open the champagne, and I broke the cork off in the bottle,” he blogged later. (You can almost hear that mad-scientist laugh of his.) “Fortunately, our other valve operations went more smoothly.”

Benson is probably the least known of the space entrepreneurs, although he collaborated with Rutan on the hybrid motor that rocketed SpaceShipOne into the history books. (Just who provided what expertise for the motor is no laughing matter. It’s the center of a heated dispute between the two.) Benson, 61, is not new to new industries, having got his start in the nascent Internet world. In 1984 he created full-text indexing and search and sold Compusearch to an East Coast investment group for about $10 million. After a decade of work on satellites, he hopes to raise $50 million to mass produce the Dream Chaser. While Benson may not have the deep pockets of his rivals, he has aerospace experience: most of the moving parts on the Mars Rover came from his shops. His philosophy? “If we want to go to space to stay, space has to pay.” The taxpayers have carried the burden for too long, he believes, saying, “We have to find something in space that is profitable and use that to grow the economy.”

Luckily, space is a gold mine. A geologist by training, Benson points out that all those comets and asteroids tumbling around in near-Earth orbit contain water and minerals. Water’s components–hydrogen and oxygen–are the building blocks of life and a darn good rocket fuel as well. Some estimates put the number of asteroidal water deposits at 5 million. Some metallic asteroids have 100 times the concentration of gold of any mines on earth today. (Earth’s gold results from some of those asteroids crashing into the planet.) “While exploration is going on, we can use those natural resources. There is no life there, no ownership, no private-property rights,” he points out. No rules–an entrepreneur’s dream.

The man watching all these developments closely is Bigelow, a Las Vegas icon whom many compare with the early Howard Hughes, the aircraft enthusiast who started TWA, although Bigelow, who is in his 60s, isn’t as eccentric, probably. Yes, in 1995, he founded the now defunct National Institute for Discovery Science to investigate paranormal activity and alien abductions, principally because his grandparents claimed to have had a close encounter with a UFO. But in 2002 he licensed exclusive rights to NASA’s canceled TransHab inflatable habitat and set to work creating his own commercial space stations and hotels. Last July Genesis I shot into space, ballooned to limo size and began circling the globe with a box of Mexican jumping beans and some roaches on board as test subjects, making it the first private space station (and roach motel) in the universe. Genesis II, upgrading its passenger list to scorpions and ants, goes up in April–at about the time Bigelow says he will unveil his business plan to the National Space Symposium.

Bigelow’s space habitat is admittedly more Budget Suites than Four Seasons right now, but his intent was never to be just an extraterrestrial hotelier. He has long talked of pharmaceutical companies doing research–particularly cancer research–in the microgravity environment of space. That Genesis even exists stuns the man behind TransHab’s design, former NASA engineer William Schneider, who visits Bigelow Aerospace in North Las Vegas every few weeks to monitor progress on the full-size habitat, set for launch by 2010. “I went to humor him at first, but when I got there, he had built TransHab out of aluminum and had a small-scale [model] inflated,” says Schneider. At full size, 45 ft. long and 22 ft. in diameter, it should hold three to six people in a shirtsleeve environment. TransHab launches in a compressed state, with fabric wrapped around a rigid core, then inflates “like a pup tent in the back of a car,” according to Schneider. Bigelow has poured $75 million into the project so far.

Of course, you can’t get to Bigelow’s space station without a ride. No problem, since spaceport plans are popping up faster than airports–seven at last count, from Truth or Consequences, N.M., to Sheboygan, Wis. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has signed off on plans for a $220 million–to–$225 million Spaceport America to focus on space tourism.

New Mexico sees itself as a Silicon Valley of space, a place where an industry cluster could develop, absorbing investment and throwing off jobs as it does. When state economic-development secretary Rick Homans, chairman of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, saw the list of global companies participating in the X Prize in 2004, he says it suddenly dawned on him that the new space industry might look just like the early computer industry–a bunch of crazy guys. “They start with chaotic, crazy inventors and entrepreneurs–colorful characters, some of whom are living hand to mouth, on the verge of going out of business.” Critics have suggested that he’s the one with the screw loose.

No one quite knows where it will all end up. “I have a hunch that the most important reason we’re going to space is not known now,” says Rutan, who also points to similarities with the early computer industry, which evolved from the Army’s need to improve its ballistics calculations. He and Branson have 100 engineers looking at new technology for both orbital and suborbital flights as well as lunar flybys in a “glass bubble.” On Necker, the two men pored over ideas for a plane that would fly orbitally, cutting flying time between New York City and London to 20 min. once in orbit.

You could understand why the chairman of Virgin Atlantic Airways would be interested in an orbital passenger jet. But why invest in what now looks like the world’s most expensive amusement-park ride? “I hope that people going into space will come back and appreciate this beautiful world more,” says Branson, turning philosophical about man’s future on Earth. You almost believe him until he flashes that grin and adds, “If worst comes to worst, the Virgin Moon sounds pretty good. We’ll colonize it!” Then Branson walks off the beach at Necker, shouting, “King Richard of the Moon! Lord Richard of the Galactic!” I swear, he means it.

[This article consists of a complex diagram. Please see hardcopy of magazine.] A $200,000 JOYRIDE Virgin Galactic is among several groups racing to offer anyone with the money a flight into space. The company’s plan is based on the successful 2004 flights of SpaceShipOne, the world’s first privately funded spacecraft.

1 Jet carries spacecraft to about 9.4 miles (15.2 km). Ship separates from aircraft and fires rocket. • SpaceShipTwo*

2 Ship reaches 3,500 m.p.h. (5,633 km/h) during 90-sec. climb up to 80 miles (130 km)

3 Passengers experience 4 min. of weightlessness • Cabin holds six passengers • Pilots

4 Flaps rotate upward to increase friction during re-entry

5 Ship glides, unpowered, back to Earth

*Illustration based on artist’s conception of planned spacecraft

Source: Virgin Galactic

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