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Sunday, 24 April 2016

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Space cowboys

Elon Musk. Jeff Bezos. Richard Branson. Paul Allen. All four are household names around the world. They basically need no introduction about their primary business. Musk is the founder of payments site PayPal and Tesla Motors, whose new Model 3 has 325,000 pre-orders already though the car will not be ready until December 2017; Bezos is the founder CEO of Amazon, the e-commerce giant that is now bigger than Wal-Mart; Branson is the founder of the Virgin business empire that has everything from trains to planes and Allen is the co-founder of software giant Microsoft, along with the more famous Bill Gates, the richest man in the world according to Forbes.

But what do they all have in common? They are all into space - no, none of them has actually been to space but if their plans and projects become successful, even lesser mortals like us will one day be able to travel to space, even through space. This is the future of space exploration and it is already happening.

They are all going into territory where Governments fear to tread out of a lack of funds or worse, a will to aim higher. As one commentator said recently, "they have the money, they have the desire and they lack the bureaucratic overhead".

Spectacular landing

Musk is the founder of SpaceX, which recently conducted a spectacular landing of a rocket on a drone ship in the ocean, which has never been done before, even by NASA. SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket completed its burn, landed upright on the drone ship, and thus demonstrated the viability of reusable rockets. Bezos is the founder of Blue Origin, which also recently successfully conducted a test where a reusable rocket (New Shepherd) was fired to the inner reaches of space and brought down.

Branson perhaps is the most ambitious of them all since he envisions a future where everyone can fly off into space, using his Virgin Galactic spacecraft. This is a big target, given that only 500 people, mostly trained astronauts, have travelled to space so far (space here means the area around 100 Km above Earth).

The first 100 "future astronauts" who signed up for Virgin Galactic's journey to 100km above the Earth had paid $200,000 for the privilege. A further 600, who would follow the first 100 into space, put down a sizeable deposit on a $250,000 ticket. The name "Galactic" is a nod to a future where Man will be exploring the depths of space, a la Star Trek.

Two projects

Paul Allen's Vulcan Aerospace (the name comes from Star Trek) is responsible for two projects - the SpaceShip One (which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 for becoming the first privately funded manned vehicle to reach space twice in the span of two weeks) and Stratolaunch Systems, a company that aims to launch satellites from the belly of a huge carrier aircraft with a wingspan of 385 feet (117 meters). Stratolaunch's air-launch strategy should reduce costs and increase flexibility.

While these are the four major faces in private space exploration, there are a number of other companies that are doing work in this sphere including designing futuristic spacecraft for outer Earth and intergalactic travel. And we have not even mentioned the established private space companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing which also have many projects in the pipeline. Moreover, all private space companies have suffered failures, but that is the only way to learn from mistakes and perfect their systems further.

The four space billionaires apparently know each other and keep track of what the others are doing, but they take pains to point out that they do not want to get head of anyone. Space is so vast, there is plenty of room for everyone to work in. Each billionaire has a slightly different approach to space exploration, both manned and unmanned. But they are all focused on bringing down the costs of space flight. For example, conventional rockets cannot be re-used once they are fired off to space. But SpaceX and Blue Origin rockets are re-usable, which should drastically cut down costs associated with space launches, manned or cargo.

Space division

But sending people off to space is not the only benefit that would flow from private space exploration. Branson, for example, has another company in his space division that makes small satellites for providing Wi-Fi and Internet connectivity. "There are four billion people who don't have internet or Wi-Fi access," he says. "This is the best way to get to them. Nothing will pull people out of poverty more than being connected." Even Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has a similar plan to provide cheaper Internet to the developing world.

The commercial space business has become a major impetus to the global economy over the years. Originally spurred by seed funding from NASA and its European counterpart, space exploration has become big business - and commercial space activity is expected to double over the next decade from today's US$250 billion.

This space race is not a competition with only one possible winner. This is a race where everyone can be winners - the companies, the governments and of course, future astronauts. Yes, going into space will be expensive initially as seen from Virgin Galactic's charges, but costs will come down over the next few decades.

Immediate environs

Unexpectedly, the emergence of private companies for exploring the immediate environs of the Earth has enabled the likes of NASA to focus on longer-term projects such as a manned mission to Mars. Again, private companies' help and expertise will be much needed in such an endeavour. Looking to the future, the space companies have already set their sights on more exotic pursuits including asteroid mining, deep space tourism, faster cross-continent Earth transport (essentially supersonic planes), more efficient and expanded scientific, entertainment and military applications.

In the end, these missions will help the ultimate quest: Finding Earth 2.0. The prospects for the Earth are not all that great in the long term, so NASA and others are searching for another planet conducive to life. NASA has estimated that about 100,000 Earth-like planets exist in our galaxy (Milky Way).

Considering there are 100 billion stars in the Milky Way alone, it is going to take some dedicated searching to find a suitable planet. It is essentially going to be a public-private partnership and fortunately, the world already has seen that intrepid space explorers from the private sector are willing to take the lead.

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