Space, the Final Frontier

Today was a really exciting day in the future of human exploration of space. Space Ship One did it’s second flight with (simulated) passengers in less than 2 weeks, earning the Ansari X Prize.

The craft was designed by aircraft design genius Burt Rutan — who by the way has a space station design rolling around his office — and funded by eccentric billionaire Paul Allen. Of course sticklers for accounting will note that Mr. Allen put up over $20 Million to win part of a $10 Million prize.

This is important for a number of reasons. First, it should be clear that the Space Shuttle and Soyuz craft are nearing the end of their useful design life. The need to fix stuff and carry on with experiments in Earth orbit will not go away just because we humans are driving a proverbial old beater to get to work.

Second and more important, they did this without any backing from any nation, and minimal corporate backing. No members of the G8 signed off on this. No Boeing or Lockheed engineers did any work on it. They didn’t get truckloads of parts from Pratt and Whitney or from GE. In fact, Virgin Atlantic — er, I mean Galactic only got involved last week. They did this on a shoestring budget. At least a shoestring in astronomical terms. They proved it could be done this way: low budget and government free.

But is this a place that mega-money will be made in the next decade or so? Remember, endorsements aside, Mr. Allen is in the red on this project. Whether Mr. Branson makes money on his flights remains to be seen. Some financial whizzes say that air travel is a money hole all by itself, so it does stand to reason that space travel would be even more so. And the opportunities to invest in the future of space travel are scarce.

As much as many of us would love to go into space, I think we’ve got a bit of a wait for those super saver weekend getaway tickets.