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An Introduction to Private Spaceflight

March 20th, 2007

“Earth is the cradle of mankind, but one cannot stay in the cradle forever.”  These words by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky ring true as we stand at the dawn of a new era: the expansion of human civilization into space.  This revolution will be remembered as one of the most significant movements of the century.  At the forefront of this charge into the future stand private entities, for the very first time.  Through their motivation, the expansion is inevitable, and will start happening more rapidly than many believe possible.

Unfortunately, the past 50 years do not provide a positive forecast for humanity’s prospects in space.  We have been into space before, having traveled as far as the moon in a sustained and challenging exploration program, and yet in more than 30 years since we have failed to produce anything of similar novelty.  Technology has exploded in almost every other sector of the economy, yet human activity in space has remained on a circular path, quite literally.  Given this evidence, something drastic must be occurring to support the primary claim.

Enter the free market, where once only government stood.  Space has long been the domain of large bureaucracies that exist to please trifling constituencies whose existence can only be supported by illegitimate tampering with the free market.  Specifically, space programs have been controlled by the bastard children of academia and government, and of large corporations and government.  These entities have failed to concern themselves with progress in the economic and technological sense as they mutually pleasure each other.  Where they have failed, the free market will succeed.  Both history and a competent understanding of economics suggest this.

The primary barrier to our expansion into space on a large scale has been the cost of access.  As private entities begin to enter space seeking profit, they face a stronger imperative to lower their costs than any program subsidized by irresponsible government.  This aspect of the profit motive has been the driving force behind the lowering cost of computers, for example, as well as virtually every other product in any market throughout time.

Aside from cost, another significant barrier is safety.  Space travel will not become publicly acceptable when the risk of death is tangible, given modern attitudes.  Here, again, the free market has an imperative to succeed where government has failed.  No product that could kill a user so violently as in the explosion of a rocket or re-entry disintegration has the chance of being marketed successfully.  Government has been able to ignore this with the concept of astronauts being “public servants,” the same concept used to justify the death of an individual serving in a military.  As the free market suffers from no such delusions, suppliers of spaceflight must make spaceflight safe.

Abstract argument aside, entities have begun doing exactly this recently.  In the past few years we have witnessed an explosion of space startups that are just now beginning to produce the first usable hardware in the new space race.  Without a doubt, one of the primary motivators behind this explosion was the X-Prize, a $10 million competition to successfully launch a human into space twice within two weeks in the same, reusable vehicle.  This prize was claimed in October of 2004 by Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites with the innovative SpaceShipOne.  And while mainstream media interest has waned since then due to the lack of high-profile launches on a regular basis, an incredible amount of creative and financial capital has been invested behind the scenes to build the momentum of this movement.  The results of this investment are just beginning to materialize in an exciting way.

The number of competitors in this new market is remarkable, and similarly remarkable is the variety of both the types of products being offered and the various novel approaches towards spaceflight.  Bigelow Aerospace is building inflatable space station modules; SpaceX is building the rockets to launch them.  Burt Rutan is building SpaceShipTwo; Richard Branson is marketing the product to future space tourists.  Armadillo Aerospace and Masten Space Systems are approaching the design of rockets as the IT industry approaches the design of software.  Benson Space Company and Rocketplane Kistler will unveil suborbital spaceplanes and have plans to develop orbital transportation services thereafter.  Blue Origin is doing it all secretly.  Space Adventures is selling this myriad of space experiences to rich tourists from around the world.

With all these happenings, it is only a matter of time before the global economy acknowledges the birth of a new, viable private spaceflight industry.  It is already beginning to happen, with hundreds of tourists having committed to suborbital spaceflights, and a legion of potential customers keeping a close eye on the market.

Despite this industry’s nascence, there is already the kind of competition that will permanently lower the cost of access to space.  A relevant example at this point is the race between Masten Space Systems and Armadillo Aerospace in the development of a vertical-takeoff-vertical-landing reusable launch vehicle.  This competition is embodied in the Lunar Lander Challenge, a $2 million prize program undoubtedly inspired by the X-Prize.  This is only one example, and the competition will only intensify as the industry expands.  Going further, competition can only lower cost.

Once the cost of access to space is drastically lowered, we can begin to actualize the dream of permanent space settlement.  It is happening now, and it is happening without artificial subsidy in the free market.  Several major entrepreneurs, including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, have announced their intentions to personally fund human exploration and development of Mars, the logical first location of a new branch of human civilization.  Inevitable, it is only a matter of time.

On one level, this movement is simply the expression of the entrepreneurial tendency to fill new potential markets in the economy.  This is in itself a good thing; however, the impact of the movement is even more fundamental.  By transforming humanity into a multi-planet species, the private spaceflight revolution will liberate us from a number of existential risks, as well as the oppressive mentality that is the potentially emerging, stagnating, collectivist New World Order.  It will marginalize the risk of extinction due to a major geological catastrophe, for example a long-overdue asteroid impact, and lessen the risk of extinction due to nuclear war.  Whereas the New World Order seeks to conform humanity to a single collective voice, the private spaceflight revolution will preserve the value of individuality, as the expansion to new frontiers has done in the past.

Humanity’s future in space is a horizon, and the sun is just now beginning to rise.  The revolution is still accelerating forward and upward, and will culminate when you personally have the opportunity to leave Earth if you so desire.  The power of free enterprise is paving your way.


  1. Charles Palmer says

    “the bastard children”???
    Umm, ok.

    Are there going to be more parts after the introductions? I hope so!

    March 21st, 2007 | #

  2. Matt Bowes says

    Bastard children? Yes. For example, with their attitude and the way they conduct business, Lockheed Martin is the bastard child of government and a large corporation. “Bastard” implies illegitimate, and this type of entity certainly is.

    More essays? Yes. Expect one every 2-3 weeks.

    March 21st, 2007 | #

  3. Jim Benson says

    Nice article, but a little optimistic.

    Please recall that there were about 29 registered competitors for the X-Prize, but only one credible and financed team - Paul’s Allen’s with SpaceDev as the safe rocket motor provider.

    Today, about a dozen have indicated an interest in commercial suborbital spaceflight, but only two are credible: Benson Space Company and Virgin Galactic.

    Beware of serial con men and daydreamers. Be sure to examine the track record of the principals to see iif they have successful track records in starting and running profitable businesses with real products, or are they just daydreams, wannabees or con men selling systems that require unobtainium.

    Onward and upward,

    Jim Benson

    March 21st, 2007 | #

  4. Darnell Clayton says

    I would also say this is a little optimistic, although I agree with the overall essay.

    Unfortunately you left out the Moon, which we can not skip in order to visit Mars.

    We still have not found a way to deal with the affects of micro gravity on bones/muscles, or space radiation between worlds or actually built a self sustaining biosphere (all attempts have failed miserably thus far).

    We are taking major steps, yes, but these are baby steps at best (as our race gets their footing among the stars). We still have a long way to go, but it may be another century before we are colonizing other worlds (as Mars costs about 100 billion just in transit with humans).

    March 21st, 2007 | #

  5. Ed Minchau says

    Darnell, I don’t know if I would call Biosphere II a miserable failure. From what I can tell, it was much like SpaceX’s launch on March 20, a 90% success. There are definitely improvements that could be made (such as not having windows, so that total energy requirements can be precisely monitored, and waiting for the concrete to completely cure before starting the experiment) but they did a remarkable job in advancing the knowledge about CELS systems. This is the sort of thing that NASA ought to be doing, rather than Ares.

    March 21st, 2007 | #

  6. Stellvia says

    Jim - care to indicate why Blue Origin isn’t a credible player? They have talented engineers, they have working, flying hardware, and most importantly they have money.

    March 22nd, 2007 | #

  7. Julian Morrison says

    Profits are more important than just a price lowering mechanism. They’re also the only means to climb to the heights of wealth at which routine space flight can be afforded. It’s the difference between a budget that’s fully consumed (NASA) and one that’s refilled after use by profits and so acts like an upward ratchet.

    March 22nd, 2007 | #

  8. Jim Benson says

    To Stellvia,

    I started the trend of successful high tech entrepreneurs moving into the space arena, and was probably the first to find out how hard it is :-)

    Nevertheless, my company SpaceDev has grown to over 200 employees and delivers almost $30 million in innovative space hardware per year. I started Benson Space Company last year to bring my brand of successful innovation to human commercial space flight, based around two things: proven safe hybrid rocket motors, and a proven vehicle design (NASA’s HL-20 / Soviet BOR-4).

    The other space tourism entrepreneurs I referred to above are using spaceship designs that are just flat out impossible (horizontal takeoff), and all are using dangerous explosive rocket motor propellants. See the videos of the recent Sea Launch explosion.

    I believe that high test hydrogen peroxide is one of the most dangerous, and almost any pilot will tell you they do not want to fly anything that absolutely depends on having fuel in the tanks in order to land.

    I do wish all well, but few are practical, realistic and safe.

    Jim Benson

    P.S. To Julian - you are right, but I would go further - nothing is sustainable without profits, hence the total lack of progress in taxpayer funded space activities for the last 40 years.

    If we want to go to space to stay, space has to pay.

    March 22nd, 2007 | #

  9. Patrick Stollenwerk says

    Mr. Benson-
    I don’t understand why you refer to horizontal take-off as ‘flat out impossible.’ Doesn’t SpaceShipOne use a horizontal take-off method?

    Also, can I ask you why you chose to step down from SpaceDev and start Benson Space Company instead?

    -Pat Stollenwerk

    March 22nd, 2007 | #

  10. Jim Benson says

    Patrick - we hired consultants back in 2001 to evaluate Pioneer Rocketplane’s claim to be able to do a horizontal takeoff from a runway and then use a rocket motor to reach a 100 km altitude. They concluded the same thing Dennis Tito had learned earlier — it is impossible unless you use unobtainium or break the laws of physics. A paper by the consultants was published by AIAA showing the calculations. The work was performed by Marti and Nesrin Sarigul-Klijn at U.C. Davis. We then broke off our relationship with Pioneer.

    Honest companies like Kelly Space & Technology, the original Pioneer Rocketplane under Bob Zubrin, and Scaled composites all found you needed a “half” stage - towing, refilling or being dropped. Horizontally from a runway: it simply cannot be done.

    For why I left SpaceDev to start Benson Space Company, see the following by Jeff Foust:

    Onward and upward!

    March 22nd, 2007 | #

  11. Stellvia says

    Jim -

    “almost any pilot will tell you they do not want to fly anything that absolutely depends on having fuel in the tanks in order to land”

    Performing a safe landing in a conventional wide-body jet with all tanks empty is HARD, and requires superb piloting. I note that the flight crew of the Gimli 767 had no official training in all-engines-out landing, and there were no written emergency procedures to cover the eventuality. Boeing and Air Canada obviously didn’t think it was a realistic scenario :-)

    I also note that the Blue Origin New Shepard is reportedly a two-module design, where the crew module can separate and perform an independent landing under parachute, so strictly speaking it doesn’t *require* fuel in the tanks to get the crew home.

    HTP has “interesting” handling properties, agreed, but the British seemed to work out how to use it ok in the 60’s with Blue Streak/Black Arrow. Also, Goddard uses HTP, but it’s not clear that New Shepard will. The fact that Bezos is seeking to recruit people with experience on large cryo engines strongly suggests that New Shepard may use LOX/LH2 or LOX/kero.

    This is not a slam against you or your project. I appreciate your track record, and the advantages of using a proven design like the HL-20. I very much want to see you succeed and see Dream Chaser take flight.

    The SF geek in me would also quite like to see Ben Browder (the actor who played John Crichton from ‘Farscape’) take a flight in Dream Chaser, because Dream Chaser looks an awful lot like Farscape One ;-)

    March 23rd, 2007 | #

  12. Patrick Stollenwerk says

    Oh, ok, I see now. Thanks for clearing that up and thanks for the article.

    I was also wondering what you/your company thinks about a maglev launch method. Not necessarily a launch free from fuel, but using it for a first stage and then a typical rocket for the second stage to complete the trip into orbit. Most of the efficiency is lost in the beginning of a take-off so a maglev system could potentially drop the cost and pre-launch weight of a spacecraft. The reason I was asking about this is because I recently read about the concept and a company that was doing a project for the government that will launch satellites using this method.

    By the way, thanks for taking your time to answer my questions and others. I really enjoy reading what you have to say.

    Thanks again!

    March 23rd, 2007 | #

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