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Welcome to the Real Space Age

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An illustration from Virgin Galactic of what customers can expect in zero gravity.  

At the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum in the town of Las Cruces, exhibitors were gathered in booths and behind tables, hawking propulsion technology and ballistics and aerospace engineering specialties of all sorts, offering schwag of stress-ball planets, literature, and DVDs with stars or spaceships or contrails as cover art. Standing conspicuously in the middle of the room was a life-size fiberglass spacefaring vessel called the Lynx, developed by a small California company called XCOR Aerospace. Dr. Lee Valentine, a primary investor, insisted I climb inside.

This was the International Symposium for Personal and Commerical Spaceflight. It had been co-founded eight years earlier by a New Mexico State professor named Pat Hynes, who had been studying and advocating for the commercial potential of space for twenty years. She has watched the conference grow in size and influence alongside the industry. Now, the facility buzzed with engineers and scientists and entrepreneurs and astronauts. Sponsors included Lockheed Martin and Boeing, a European company touting its ability to “launch any payload to any orbit at anytime,” and another company claiming the authority to sell plots of land on the moon. Hynes, ecstatic, inaugurated the conference by shouting a “Let’s rock this house!” welcome, before introducing Michael Lopez-Alegria, a recently retired space-shuttle astronaut who spoke of his conversion from “skeptic with outright disdain for the idea of commercial space” to a “Kool-Aid-pouring believer” in the private space industry.

The overall feeling was the kind emitted by a group of people who know things others do not, or at least not yet, which was reinforced by several current events. Three days earlier, in one of the most elaborate marketing stunts in history, 43-year-old Austrian Felix Baumgartner had ridden, on behalf of Red Bull, a capsule tethered to a helium balloon to a height of 127,852 feet, perched himself, and fallen, breaking the sound barrier and dropping 844 miles per hour until he landed safely in the scrubland two hours east of here. More significant, a capsule owned by the company SpaceX was careering 250 miles above us, in rendezvous with the International Space Station, on behalf of NASA, marking the first transport of cargo to the station by a private company.

There are at least ten companies seriously engaged in commercial space transport. SpaceX, created by billionaire PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, has emerged as the early leader in the three-way race sponsored by the U.S. government to develop a long-term system to replace the shuttle, to handle NASA flights to Earth’s orbit. (Its competitors include two established aerospace companies, Boeing and Sierra Nevada.) Others, like XCOR and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, are focusing on suborbital space, which is easier and less expensive to reach and, for the near future, more accommodating to tourists. One company, Space Adventures, already facilitates tourist flights—starting at $22 million—with the Russians to the International Space Station. Budget Suites founder Robert Bigelow’s company, Bigelow Aerospace, is planning to build space stations of its own. Perhaps the most ambitious (and secretive) company is Blue Origin, founded by ­Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, which is designing several vehicles, including a vertically launching and landing craft, meant to take people into orbital Earth and beyond.

All of this is taking place with the full encouragement of NASA, which has repositioned itself as something of a midwife to the nascent industry. At ISPCS, Lori Garver, the agency’s deputy administrator, shared her hope that one day she could “sit in the back anonymously [in] the natural progression of the industry taking more and more of this capability on itself.” During a break from government work in 2001, Garver had attempted to raise $20 million to buy a seat aboard the Soyuz rocket to the space station, enrolling in training in Star City, Russia, and launching the “AstroMom” project to solicit corporate sponsorship. (The singer Lance Bass knocked her out of contention, though he failed to raise the $20 million and ended up not flying.) She spoke of the free market with Randian fervor, and cited the Renaissance, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo; the Wright brothers, Samuel Langley, and Glenn Curtiss; Steve Jobs and Bill Gates; “Bezos and Musk.” She said she was “so proud that NASA can play a small role” and thanked us in the audience “for creating a space-faring civilization.”

The perestroika of space was on display elsewhere. Army brigadier general Gwen Bingham of the nearby White Sands Missile Range—one of the country’s largest military installations, the birthplace of American rocketry, the clandestine setting of the first successful detonation of an atomic weapon—cued up an extended commercial featuring dramatic music and imagery of missiles, bombs, and rockets, as a voice-over ticked off the base’s “runways!”; “urban environment simulation!”; “environmental test chambers!”; “unmanned systems!”; “material testing!”; “meteorological effects!” She bragged that her base enjoys the only nuclear-effects facility within the Defense Department, perfect for “the various testing of your space portfolio.” Behind her the screen read WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE—WE’RE MORE THAN JUST MISSILES.


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