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Space Race 2: Half-price rockets

By IRENE MONA KLOTZ   |   Nov. 10, 2004 at 11:33 AM   |   Comments

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Nov. 10 (UPI) -- The hubbub over a $10 million prize for a pair of private manned spaceflights is over, with a quiet electronic transfer of funds into the bank account of Mojave Aerospace Adventures, a check-and-trophy presentation ceremony last weekend in St. Louis, and a glitzy gala marking the official and successful end of the X Prize.

Now, the real work begins.

The Mojave, Calif., team lead by Burt Rutan, winners of the X Prize, is focused on producing a fleet of commercial suborbital passenger vessels for its new customer, Richard Branson, head of Virgin Atlantic Airways.

Two Canadian teams still plan to stage X Prize flights and parlay their technologies into space tourism businesses as well. Meanwhile, several other X Prize contenders continue to refine their vehicles and conduct test flight programs.

The spotlight, however, soon will shift to another California firm following a different path into space, one that does not include passengers or pilots on the first-generation ships. While Rutan's team, which was backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, was busy staging back-to-back spaceflights for its home-built rocket-glider SpaceShipOne, another computer whiz-turned-rocketeer named Elon Musk watched as his vehicle, the Falcon 1, was preparing to be hoisted onto an oceanside launch pad less than 200 miles west of the SpaceShipOne show.

A successful flight for Falcon early next year would deliver a second blow to the status quo. SpaceShipOne poignantly demonstrated it does not take a government program to put people into space. Falcon's aim is to radically cut the price of travel to space, which currently costs about $10,000 per pound to orbit.

"If it's going to cost that much, humanity will never be in position to colonize a planet -- no way. That is at the heart of what is preventing us from making progress in space," Musk said in an interview with United Press International. "The Falcon launch vehicle aims to make cheap, reliable launches a reality. We have a real shot here."

After selling PayPal -- the Internet financial services company he founded -- to Ebay for $1.5 billion, Musk began holding Saturday brain-storming sessions with engineers until he became sufficiently confident he would be able to develop a new and less expensive way to launch payloads into orbit.

Musk left Silicon Valley in June 2002 and set up a new company, Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX for short, in the aerospace mecca of El Segundo, Calif., located just south of Los Angeles.

Falcon 1 is SpaceX's first offering. Scheduled for its debut flight in mid to late January from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Falcon 1 is a small launch vehicle capable of putting up to about 1,500 pounds into low-Earth orbit. Launches sell for a flat fee of $6 million -- about half the going rate.

The cut-rate service is possible because of "lots of innovative things we do," Musk said. "There's not one specific technology that makes this project work."

The company's business plan includes financial breathing room to recover from any early failures of Falcon 1 and steps quickly into the heart of Musk's goal: a heavy-lift booster designed to fly cargo as well as passenger-occupied capsules.

Musk supported the X Prize financially, but skipped the competition.

"At the end of the day, it would have been a distraction," Musk said. "I can make more money in contracts and revenues than I could winning the X Prize."

He also is not all that excited about the prospect of space tourism.

"I don't think it's a tragedy that people can't have fun in space. People should be able to go if they want to, but it's no great tragedy if they can't. But I do think it is a great tragedy if humanity can't establish itself on another planet," Musk said. "It's the single most important thing we can do to continue the human race."

SpaceX certainly isn't opposed to space tourism, however. Its first customer for the heavy-lift Falcon 5, designed to carry more than 6 tons to low-Earth orbit, is a commercial space firm in Las Vegas owned by hotel operator Robert Bigelow. He wants to launch a prototype inflatable space hotel into orbit. Launch is targeted for late next year.

SpaceX also has agreements with the U.S. Department of Defense for three Falcon 1 flights. The first mission is to carry an experimental satellite designed to locate and track foreign ships by picking up their electronic signals.

"The government should be a funder, not a doer of these activities," Musk said. "It's very important that there be new entities developing space systems because the current ones are not doing a good job."

Musk has not been subtle about his intentions. He debuted the 70-foot Falcon 1 by trucking it from California to Washington, D.C., and parking it in front of the National Air and Space Museum. He then hosted a party there for legislators, staff, government managers and prospective customers.

The company already has made history by developing and building Falcon 1 in just 18 months. Musk promises Falcon 5 development, which is based on Falcon 1 designs and systems, will be even faster.

Musk's ultimate goal is to help colonize Mars.

"It's the only planet that could support a human civilization," he said.

While there is no immediate threat to human life on Earth, Musk is not one to procrastinate.

"We should do it now because we can do it now. Preserving the species is something you should attempt to do whenever you are able. Otherwise, you could be sitting around in the 26th century and saying, 'Oh well, why not in the 30th?' We should attempt to do this as soon as we can," he said. "It just seems pretty natural to me to do things that are the most relevant, the most important things to do, and if I can make a difference, space is at the top of the list."

--

Space Race 2 is a series exploring the people, passions and business of sub-orbital manned spaceflight, by Irene Klotz, who covers space and aviation for UPI Science News. Email sciencemail@upi.com

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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