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Who Are the Players in Commercial Spaceflight Part 1: Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Paul Allen, Eren and Fatih Ozmen, Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis

In a previous post we posed the question if Commercial Spaceflight is the next big boom. Then we compared it to the growth of Steam ship and railroad travel in the 19th century.

But who are the players in today’s Commercial Spaceflight boomlet? What motivates them? There are more than most people imagine so this will be Part 1 of a several part series on these Space Flight Players.

So in no particular order:

Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard BransonSir Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic. The flamboyant mobile phone, music and airline entrepreneur is taking to commercial space with Virgin Galactic. He already has more than 200 tickets sold for sub-orbital tourist flights aboard his SpaceShipTwo space craft. Flight testing for the White Knight Two (the aircraft that carries Spaceship Two initially) and SpaceShipTwo are under way. He has also built, together with the state of New Mexico, Spaceport America in Sierra County New Mexico. Branson intends to offer orbital flight as well in the future. Branson’s motivation seems to be his spirit of adventure that has always led him to ventures where he could claim to be “first.”
Elon Musk and Space Explorations (Or Space X as it is called). Space X is the first commercial company to successfully launch a capsule that docked with the International Space Station (ISS). Space X Falcon 1 Rocket and the larger heavy lift Falcon 9 rocket in development launch capsules that later splash down in the ocean upon reentry to the atmosphere – reminiscent of the Gemini and Apollo missions.  By having a private company replicate what it took NASA and the Cold War efforts of the Us Government was doing  several decades ago, there is a Back to the Future feel about this enterprise. The South African born but now American Musk was a co-founder of the online payment company Pay Pal. With degrees in both Economics and Engineering his personality was the inspiration for the Tony Stark character in the Iron Man and Avenger movies. Musk seems to want to solve problems that others have yet to tackle – one being mankind’s eggs all being in the Earth basket. Musk has the goal of eventual Mars exploration and settlement. Musk also is working to bring innovative electric cars to market with his Tesla Motors.

Paul Allen and Stratolaunch Systems. The Microsoft Co-Founder and Venture Capitalist (Vulcan Inc.) announced the start up Stratolaunch Systems, together with Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites. The Allen/Rutan team had collaborated previously on Spaceship One, which won the Anzari X prize for being the first commercial space craft to successfully launch and re-launch civilians into space. Stratolaunch Systems will be a mobile  air launched system with the carrier craft built by Rutan’s Scaled Composites, then with Space X (see above) providing a multi stage launch vehicle and finally a docking and integration system made by Dynetics. Allen, considered in the top five wealthiest men in the world, is also the owner of NFL, NBA and Major League Soccer Franchises. He has real estate and philanthropic interest primarily in the Seattle, Washington and Pacific Norwest region. Allen is a Science Fiction and Rick and Roll fan as well as a fan aviation history – he has opened museums for all three. The Stratolauncher, which will be the largest aircraft in the air when ready, has a similar name to the Stratocruiser which was the largest commercial aircraft of its time when another Seattle based Allen announced the aircraft that featured a spiral staircase and cocktail lounge in the post war 1940’s. (William Allen head of Boeing at the time, but no relation to Paul as far as I know.) Paul Allen being such an aviation history buff, this name selection is not likely accidental. Paul Allen appears to being living out his science fiction and aviation dreams together in his commercial space ventures.

The Ozmens and Sierra Nevada Corporation. No, not Donnie and Marie (those are Osmonds) rather Eren and Fatih. This dynamic wife and husband duo took a small engineering firm in a suburb of Reno, Nevada and turned it into the largest government Defense, Intelligence and National Security Contractor that you probably never heard of. Both have engineering degrees and Sierra Nevada Corporations Space Systems division already delivered the hybrid (green) rockets used by Rutan’s Scaled Composites Space ShipOne. They have also already drop tested (dropping the spacecraft from a carrier aircraft) the Dream Catcher space craft a shuttle-like craft they are developing as a people and freight transport to the ISS. They are also involved in developing other space technologies, such as the actuators that power the Mars Rover. Publicity shy and very focused this couple benefitted from the past decades defense build up – as defense dollars are looking to go down, it will be interesting to watch them venture into the world of commercial space.

Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis of Space Adventures and Planetary Resources. Anderson and Diamandis co-founded Space Adventures which successfully sold space tourism flights aboard Russian space craft and have now launched Planetary Resources – a company developing low cost orbital telescopes with the goal of identifying and eventually mining asteroids. Many heavy hitters are investing in their company including Google Co-Founder and CEO Larry Page, H. Ross Perot Jr., Avatar Filmmaker James Cameron and Former Goldman Sachs Chairman John Whitehead. Anderson is the current chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry association, and has helped found several space start ups. Diamandis is co-founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation which awarded the first prize to Burt Rutan and Paul Allen’s SpaceShipOne (see above) for successful commercial space flights.  Diamandis, with Biology and engineering degrees from MIT and an MD from Harvard Medical has many futuristic interests including the Singularity University with Ray Kurzweil. Anderson and Diamandis seem to have had a life-long passion for promoting space flight. Diamandis’s love of rockets goes all the way back to his days as a youngster in the Bronx, NY when he won the Estes model rocket design prize.

These five are just a start. There will be several more parts to this series, as there are more players than folks are aware of. I know I was surprised when I started researching the number of players in this new and up and coming industy.

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.

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Commercial Spaceflight: The Next Big Boom?

If you are looking for an investment opportunity, how’s this for size?  An industry where a founder of Google, a founder of Microsoft, a founder of Pay Pal, a founder of Amazon, an airline and cell phone magnate, a former head of Goldman Sachs, and the highest grossing filmaker of all time are all investing – some heavily.* Some are creating new start ups or investing in the start ups of others. That’s a lot of smart money all in one place.

What is this new potential boom?

In 1824 the US Supreme Court case Gibbons vs. Ogden, the court nullified a monopoly for steam ship travel along the Hudson River. One of Mr. Gibbons’ employees, a river captain called “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt ran with the result of this decision. He went on to fame as a Steam Ship builder and operator and eventually a railroad magnate. He also became the richest man in America. The transportation revolution he helped spearhead changed America and the world.

In the last few years, the NASA based government monopoly on space travel in the United States has been nullified. We are now in the Steam Ship phase of commercial spaceflight. There will be later the equivalent of railroads (right now the concept is called a space elevator – it is a vertical railroad.) But that will be the topic of a future column.

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Somebody is going to be the Cornelius Vanderbilt of Space. Somebody is going to be the Henry Ford of Space (hopefully with all the inventive genius minus the bigotry.) Somebody is going to be the Jay Gould of Space. Somebody is going to be the Andrew Carnegie of Space materials. Somebody is going to be the Guggenheim (Copper mining Barron) of Space mining. Somebody is going to be the Alexander Graham Bell of Space. Hopefully we will have the Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison of Space as well.

We are entering into a period of innovation and exploration done by the private sector on the first true frontier since the American West. All of the NASA missions up until now were just Lewis and Clark. We are entering into a time of great expansion – also a time when fortunes previously unthinkable are made.

I’ll be exploring this new horizon in a series of articles.

* If you are wondering who the investors referred to are: Larry Page (Google), Paul Allen, (Microsoft), Elon Musk (Pay Pal), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), John Whitehead (Goldman Sachs) and James Cameron (Titanic and Avatar.)

Next up: Who are the current players in commercial spaceflight?

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Charlie Sheen, Conan O’Brian, Middle East Revolution and Paddy Chayefsky

What do Charlie Sheen, Conan O’Brian and Steven Slater (the flight attendant who quit his job, grabbed a beer and slid down the emergency chute) have to do with protestors in the Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Iran and possibly Saudi Arabia? 

And what do any of these people have to do with a 1976 movie written by Paddy Chayefsky?

A lot. In that film, “Network”, a fictional news anchor, Howard Beale, decides that he is “mad as hell,” and that he is “not going to take it anymore!” The network decides to keep him on the air, he becomes a phenomenon and called a Mad Prophet.

Sheen, Conan O’Brian and Flight attendant Steven Slater were all frustrated with their employers. They all left their jobs loudly rather than quietly and became folk heroes in the process. Folk heroes fueled by the internet social sites, Facebook and Twitter in particular.

Chayefsky was three decades ahead of his time and the word “Network” today has a larger meaning. In the movie the public at large joined the “Mad as Hell and not going to take it anymore!” movement. Today people across the world are mad as hell.

People have been “mad as hell” for a while. The current global economic downturn has frustrated people across the planet. The difference is that now people have decided that they “…are not going to take it anymore.”  The internet and social networking in particular, are providing a way to express the anger.  More than that, the online world is providing a way to organize and get results.

The results are real. Conan O’Brian was able to keep his fan base despite being barred from broadcast television. Charlie Sheen may be onto a new career as an online Mad Prophet selling Tiger’s Blood and promoting “winning.” In the Middle East, two strongmen who held power for decades have fallen, one is in a civil war and others may still be deposed.  

The plot twist in the 1976 movie was that the “Network” decided to keep the Mad Prophet on the air in a cynical ploy for ratings. In today’s network, the TV Networks could not keep Charlie Sheen, Conan O’Brian off the air- at least not off the internet. Neither could an Egyptian state run TV station silence a Google manager.

When people are Mad as Hell in this new Communications/Information age, those in power will have to listen – they can no longer just pull the plug. The Mad as Hell side is “winning.”

That changes everything.

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Watson, Google, Egypt’s revolution, Saudi Kings, the price of oil and the Singularity

Watson the IBM Computer not only wins, but beats two of the biggest former human champions handily on the TV game show Jeopardy.

Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for Google, plays the part of Egypt’s Technological Cromwell and helps spark a revolution.

Raymond Kurzweil, a leading Artificial Intelligence expert predicts a “Singularity”, the day when Artificial Intelligence surpasses human intelligence, as coming sooner rather than later.

All these events happened within days of each other – how are they related?

Just as the Twentieth Century was dominated by technological, social and political changes caused by the industrial revolution – we are seeing that the Twenty-First Century will be dominated by such changes caused by the information revolution.

We had begun to see signs of it before. When Barak Obama was able to defeat Hillary Clinton in the Democrat Party race for the Presidential nomination, it was a victory for the online world against what was viewed as the establishment.  Now we have the role of Twitter and Facebook in the Middle East and elsewhere; partially spurred by revelations coming from Wikileaks.

The established political structures in the world are becoming as relevant as candle makers after Edison invented the light bulb and electrification of cities.

How is a King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who will be eighty-eight years old this August, to deal with this sort of a world? In fact, almost all of the large middle-eastern oil producers are in a similar predicament. They, and Russia, are right now “pinch points” in the world economy and therefore world politics. But even their economic clout could be threatened by the information revolutionaries.

Brilliant people all over the world are trying to figure out how to make a better battery. Combine a better battery with a breakthrough in nuclear fusion or some other energy producing technology and crude oil could become as irrelevant as the telegraph much faster than any of us imagine. The oil producers would become less relevant as well.

Don’t think it could happen? In the late Nineteenth Century the “industrialized world” (Europe and the America’s) were facing a vast oil shortage – whale oil that is-until fossil fuels were placed into use. Henry Ford demanded that his engineers produce a V8 engine for the automobile, despite engineers assurances that it could not be done.

We are already facing a time of greater change for more of the world’s population since World War II. It may greater change, and upheaval, than any of us can even imagine.

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