Here’s the next set of Commercial Spaceflight players:
Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin. The Founder and current head of Amazon.com (one of the few tech startup billionaires from the 1990’s who still heads his own company) has a facility in Everett, Washington where he is focusing on how to make commercial spaceflight much cheaper. He appears to be focused on making the one component of space vehicles that has mostly been expendable, the initial launch booster – be a reusable component as well. Bezos has also purchased land in West, Texas for launch operations. Many of his competitors tout each milestone in testing they make along the way. Not Bezos. When one of his test vehicles went down in Texas in late 2011 it was the first time many even realized that he was that far along in flight tests. This fits Bezos’ pattern that helped him become so successful with Amazon. He uses metrics to analyze shirt term progress, but uses gut and instinct when forming long term goals. Bezos went many years with Amazon not turning a profit while he perfected the online service. With his deep pockets, he is capable of following the same strategy with Blue Origin. He is following a childhood dream of building space stations and hotels in orbit. When Bezos actually does his big roll out- don’t be surprised if it is a fully functional spacecraft with the bugs worked out. That would be how he operates. When everyone was wondering who would be the big competitor to the Apple iPad, it was Bezos that surprised the world with the Kindle Fire Tablet. He is likely engineering a similar shocker with spaceflight.
David W. Thompson of Orbital Sciences. The Founder and CEO of Orbital Sciences could well ask, “What’s so new about Commercial Spaceflight? We’ve been doing it for three decades.” Indeed he and his crew at Orbital have. Impressed by Paul Allen and Richard Branson’s White Knight 1, which used an air craft to air launch a space vehicle, all done on a commercial basis? Orbital did it in the 1990’s with their commercial built Pegasus rocket air lifted by a modified L1011. They have used that launch system as well as others developed by them such as the Taurus, Antares, and various Minotaur models to launch satellites for the military, NASA and various commercial customers. They are currently developing the Cygnus advanced maneuvering spacecraft, capable of transporting pressurized cargo, that is slated to perform several resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS). Orbital is a “one-stop-shop” for a commercial space customer in that they can design the orbital vehicle and/or satellite, build the launcher and execute the launch and spaceflight control for you. While outsourcing pieces of the mission can be useful, a space customer can deal with Orbital and get all phases of the mission accomplished. Thompson has degrees in aeronautics from M.I.T. and CalTech, along with time at NASA, including the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) the Langley Research center and the Johnson Spaceflight Center. Along with all of this engineering background he has an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. He has never sought publicity and has had a passion for space that has lasted decades. An ace up the sleeve of Thompson and Orbital is that they have been the lead on the first two phases of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA – all they have ever done is come up with such things as…The Internet) Fractional Satellite project. Fractional satellites, by having different small satellites communicate with each other for power, communications, navigation, etc could do for satellites what networks of smaller computers did for computing – eliminate the need for one large machine. With Orbital on the cutting edge of the Fractional Satellite technology, Thompson and Orbital may be decades ahead of everyone else yet again.
Robert Bigelow and Bigelow Aerospace. A self-made real estate magnate and owner of the Budget Suites hotel chain has started Bigelow Aerospace which is addressing the need of “what if we have all these rockets and they have no place to go?” The owner of a hotel chain has the answer – affordable commercial built space stations. He is using inflatable technology and already has two stations, Genesis I and Genesis 2 successfully in orbit. Right now, the ISS is the only place for humans to go in low earth orbit. Bigelow is proposing his BA 330, which can accommodate six for a long term basis as an independent space station, or connecting a series o BA 330’s as modules of a longer station. NASA is looking at this as an option to expand the current ISS. Bigelow has launch agreements with Elon Musk’s Space X (See Part 1) and Memorandum of Understanding with various Asian and Middle Eastern Governments. Bigelow also has its own Mission Control center already operational in North Las Vegas. Bigelow may have been inspired to think about space by some relatives who apparently had a “Close Encounter.” The real estate entrepreneur also sees the US as having blown the opportunity to claim a large chunk of Real Estate – the Moon. Bigelow already sees China as staking claims on the Moon. He views it as the responsibility of the American private sector to do what a hapless government has failed to do: secure the American foothold in Space. Bigelow believes that it may be too late to keep the Moon from the Chinese, but the US commercial sector can secure an America future on Mars.
Art Dula and Excalibur Almaz. Unique among the Commercial Spaceflight pioneers Art Dula has a legal background as opposed to the usual technical or engineering background. Dula’s company, Excalibur Almaz, has secured Reusable Reentry Vehicles and space station components from the former Soviet military program called Almaz (Russian for “diamond”). This strategy has a precedent in the Commercial Airlines that started after World War II with US Army Air Corps surplus planes (Braniff Airlines comes to mind.) Dula is following this pattern with Cold War surplus spacecraft. They make the point that the technology is already proven in space and that the Salyut, Mir and ISS space stations used the very Almaz orbital unit that they have in stock. Incorporated on the Isle of Man, a British territory with favorable corporate regulations, most of the company principles are American with some former Russian cosmonaut advisors, initial financing came from Japan. By updating the Soviet era analog communications, navigation and life support monitoring systems with new digital electronics they have gained several hundred kilograms of lift capacity from the original Russian missions. Excalibur Almaz promotes trips to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), and intends to have Moon missions using the larger space craft powered by ion pulse engines. While such a trip would take months to the Moon, it would be done in a spacecraft the size of a three bedroom apartment, not a capsule. After the recent announcement of Planetary Resources with their intent to asteroid mine (See Part 1), Excalibur Almaz has added asteroid mining to their intended space missions. Dula has been involved in space ventures throughout his career. He is a Literary Trustee of the Robert A. Heinlein estate, which may indicate where his appetite for space flight was whetted.
In Part 3 of this series we will look at some of the smaller, but no less exciting players in Commercial Spaceflight.
Note: None of this should be viewed as investment advice. Dan Godzich is not an investment advisor and does not own stock in any of the companies mentioned above.