Sat, Aug 05, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Why the rush to get into space?

Space exploration was once a state monopoly, but businessmen like Richard Branson and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos are now leading the way

By Andrew Smith  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Jeff Bezos is not an innately glamorous figure. Affable and eager, with a laugh like a foghorn and soberly casual taste in clothes, he made his billions selling books and garden furniture on amazon.com, holding his nerve through the dotcom crash while rivals and peers crumpled around him.

These days, like most successful people, he has his fans and detractors, but one thing no one disputes about Bezos is that he's smart. So when a story emerged this week that this cautious retailer was now -- in apparent seriousness -- training his sights on space through a company called Blue Origin, the lay person could have been forgiven for imagining that either he'd lost his marbles or he'd made too much money.

As described to the Federal Aviation Authority, Blue Origin's plan involves flying "reusable launch vehicles" to altitudes of 98,000m from a private spaceport in the Chihuahuan Desert, Texas. Given the trouble NASA has in getting the shuttle up and down safely, one might wonder who'll pay to ride these things. But the story changes when you look around and notice who Bezos' chief competitors will be in what amounts to a second space race -- one that is about to hit full stride almost 50 years after the first began with the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957.

Bezos' interest in space tourism has been an open secret for several years. More open have been the intentions of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and of the hotel magnate Robert Bigelow, whose construction of inflatable space-hotels in the Nevada desert seemed to have a whiff of urban myth about it until he launched one aboard a Russian rocket this month.

Design prize

Still more public was the October 2004 capture of the US$10 million Ansari X Prize by the maverick plane designer Burt Rutan, following the success of the first privately funded team to launch safely and land a crewed, sub-orbital spaceship twice in the space of a week. The prize had attracted dozens of entrants from around the world, and Rutan's bizarre-looking design for SpaceShipOne was snapped up by Richard Branson for use in his Virgin Galactic enterprise. Other teams that lost out on the prize, including Armadillo Aerospace, the plaything of the hip video game designer John Carmack (the super-rich author of Doom and Quake), remain actively engaged in the rush to commercial application.

The Russians, via the American organization Space Adventures, have already lugged the first three space tourists to the International Space Station aboard their primitive but reliable Soyuz rockets. But at a price of between US$11 million and US$20 million, most of us will be sitting that one out. What Bezos et al aim to do is progressively and radically lower costs, as was done with air travel in the 20th century, and, with 2010 given as the likely time for commercial operations to start, it's going to happen. The question is why this second space race has come upon us so suddenly, when only five years ago spaceflight was still the exclusive domain of states.

The common feature of nearly all the players in this space renaissance is that they were kids when the Apollo moon landings happened in 1969. At the time, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's remarkable feat, aided by a computer with less power than a modern digital wristwatch, looked like the first step to a new future rather than the eccentric folly it now appears to have been. Yet a child's imagination does not wipe clean like a blackboard.

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