Space: The final business frontier

Written by Rick Spence

What do Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, George W. Bush, British billionaire Richard Branson and Canadian-born filmmaker James (Titanic) Cameron have in common? Still starry-eyed from growing up with NASA’s 1960s race to the moon, these 50-something baby boomers are making space exploration matter again.

The result will be new opportunities for a wide range of businesses: supplying the world’s burgeoning space programs with everything from computer equipment to training services; exploiting the new technology that will spin out of space exploration (as new composite materials, microelectronics and Tang all spun out of the Apollo program); or capitalizing on consumers’ renewed romance with space. (In the 1960s, the space program influenced everything, from architecture and automobile design to toys, furniture, fashion and music.)

Last year, President Bush signed a bold new “Vision for Space Exploration” that directed NASA to return humans to the moon and begin planning manned expeditions to Mars. He believes this effort will boost interest in science and space, unite nations in a spirit of discovery and spin off new technologies that will affect business, industry and consumers-just as the space race of the 1960s generated new materials and the miniaturized electronics behind the personal computer.

This time, business is in the jump seat. NASA’s new plan proposes more co-operation with the private sector, from sourcing software to designing the next space shuttle. The development of manned space programs in China and India will also rely on private technology. “If handled carefully, the opportunity for private-sector companies in space is enormous,” states Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu in a recent global technology report.

But impatient entrepreneurs aren’t waiting. Paul Allen, Bill Gates’s billionaire ex-partner, invested US$20 million in SpaceShipOne, a rocket plane that last June became the first privately owned aircraft to journey into space (100 km up). Four months later, the plane, built by legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan, snagged the famous X Prize, as the first private aircraft to reach space twice in one week. Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is now using SpaceShipOne as the prototype for a fleet of ships that will carry tourists into space as early as 2007. “And one day, hopefully in our lifetimes,” says Branson, “we would like to see a Virgin hotel in space.”

Space travel won’t just be for tourists. Virendra Jha, vice-president of science, technology and programs for the Canadian Space Agency in Montreal, believes space planes will soon fly passengers halfway around the world in just a few hours. You could fly to Moscow to sign a contract and be home for dinner.

Basically, space is cool again. NASA is looking at probing other solar systems and building robots that work alongside humans (“Danger, Will Robinson!”). Scientists are jubilant about the chances of finding water (and possibly life) on Mars. Two Seattle-area technology entrepreneurs just formed Lunar Transportation Systems Inc. to carry people and cargo to the moon. In Texas, founder Jeff Bezos is building a spaceport. And film director James Cameron is consulting with NASA to teach it to tell its story better. Traditionally, NASA has promoted hardware over people, says Cameron; now it must make heroes out of its astronauts and scientists. “Our children live in a world without heroes,” he says. “We need this challenge to bring us together.”

© 2005 Rick Spence

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