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Jews join the quest for space commerce

Paul Allen funds construction of SpaceShipOne, the first private vessel to reach space

by Adam Wills

November 2, 2006 | 7:00 pm

In the 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey," a commercial Pan Am Space Clipper flight carries civilians to the wheel-shaped Space Station V, which features a Hilton Hotel and a Howard Johnson's. Naturally, the calls to Earth via videophone are handled by AT&T's forerunner Bell, and the charges for the call go on American Express.

While the film's rampant commercialism was more social commentary than foresight, recent technological advances have boosted private enterprise into a field once considered government's exclusive domain.

Commercial space interests are now playing a critical role in the dawn of the second space age -- one built on business ventures and international cooperation. Instead of Hilton and Pan Am, the corporate names associated with the commercialization of space include Budget Suites and Virgin.

A new space race by corporate interests is being fueled by the dreams -- and wallets -- of prosperous entrepreneurs. Their investments are leading to the kind of technological developments that seemed like science fiction a decade ago. And Jews are represented in all aspects of the field, from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to former NASA director turned consultant Dan Goldin. "It's at every level. You see Jews in leadership positions as well as rank-and-file engineers and lawyers," said Mike Gold, a Brandeis graduate who serves as corporate counsel for Bigelow Aerospace, a commercial spacecraft and space habitat company founded by Budget Suites mogul Robert Bigelow. "It's part of the dream that a lot of people share."

The tantalizing prospect of manned space travel was first realized by Yuri Gagarin's flight aboard the Soviet-made Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961, which was followed by the U.S. team of Alan Shepard and John Glenn in NASA's Friendship 7 on Feb. 20, 1962. Immediately after the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1968, air carriers Pan Am and TWA started taking reservations for future flights to the moon; Pan Am logged more than 90,000 reservations.

The Reagan administration provided the legal framework for private space travel in 1984 with the passage of the Commercial Space Launch Act. Under government regulations, the FAA's Office for Commercial Space Transportation oversees private space launches, while the Office of Space Commercialization, part of the NOAA Satellite and Information Service, coordinates space-related issues, programs and initiatives within the Department of Commerce.

But space tourism continued to be viewed as the stuff of "2001" until former JPL scientist Dennis Tito paid $20 million to U.S.-based Space Adventures to visit the International Space Station on April 28, 2001, with the assistance of Russia's federal space agency. His seven-day space holiday, and that of three other space tourists, has brought the dream of civilian space flight another step closer.

But the reality on the ground is that the industry carries tremendous pressures, especially to build successful business strategies that don't rely on a few wealthy entrepreneurs' bank accounts.

"One of the reasons why there hasn't been a lot of truly commercial ventures in the space industry to date are the large upfront capital requirements," said Lawrence Williams, vice president for international and government affairs at SpaceX, who is Jewish and came to the industry through communications work for the Clinton administration and Bill Gates' satellite project Teledesics. "That's why typically it's only been governments that have been involved in this."

The first private space flight took place on June 21, 2004, when the commercial suborbital craft, SpaceShipOne, reached a point more than 100 kilometers above the earth. The estimated $25 million cost of developing SpaceShipOne, which was built by Scaled Composites and went on to capture the $10 million Ansari X Prize on Oct. 4, was underwritten exclusively by Microsoft's Allen. His Mojave Aerospace is now licensing the technology to VirginGalactic, which plans to send up 500 people annually on a fleet of five SpaceShipTwo ships starting in 2008. The reservation list currently stands at about 65,000 people, with suborbital trips costing $208,000 per passenger.

Companies like Blue Origin, SpaceX, Space Island Group and Bigelow Aerospace know that establishing a profitable presence in space must be based on more than just enabling passengers to experience seven minutes of weightlessness or allowing private citizens to live aboard an orbiting space hotel for a week. Industry experts say the only proven revenue stream thus far has been satellite development and satellite launches.

Alon Gany, head of the Fine Rocket Propulsion Center at Technion--Israel's Institute of Technology, said that space investment from Israel's private sector is tied almost exclusively to satellite technologies.

"One of the main efforts is the improvement of communication satellites. The other thing is developing specific components that are necessary for advanced satellites, like high-resolution cameras and cameras in different wavelengths, like infrared," he said. Risk-averse firms are looking to opportunities that can turn a profit -- from satellites launches and NASA supply contracts to unique research and development in a zero-gravity environment.

"There's all sorts of new drug treatments and biotech development that you can do in microgravity that you can't do on Earth. It's like opening up a whole new laboratory where all the rules are different because everything reacts differently," Bigelow Aerospace counsel Gold said.

Gold, 33, said his work for Bigelow Aerospace is the fulfillment of a longstanding dream fed by the first space age.

"I grew up a 'Star Trek' fan, my grandfather worked on the Apollo missions, and I always had a huge interest in space. Unfortunately, my interest was directly proportional to my lack of skill in the sciences, which is why I had to find my way to it via law," he said.

Gold says that while space travel carries inherent dangers, private industry stands to lose more from a catastrophic loss than the federal government.

"Even without government regulation, we're already highly incentivized. If we want to have industry here, customers and participants need to have a safe, reliable and affordable system in place," he said.

As private industry prepares to stake claims in space following government's Lewis-and-Clark-like exploration of the final frontier, many experts believe that a side benefit of putting more civilians in orbit will be a greater push for peace on Earth, especially in hot spots like the Middle East.

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