Silicon Valley Goes to Space

But now, in the age of cutbacks and federal furloughs, NASA is turning to the private sector to more cheaply get to Low Earth Orbit, a region roughly 100 to 600 miles above earth where the International Space Station[1] is located. From space tourism to plans to mine the moon, dozens of for-profit companies, many with the business models, characters and the high-tech, risk-taking culture of Silicon Valley, are reshaping American space exploration.

Stanford Aeronautics Professor G. Scott Hubbard, who worked at NASA for 20 years, and served as the director at one of its centers, the NASA Ames Research Center, said the space agency’s growing partnership with the private sector is critical for America to work more efficiently and cheaply in space.

“In the old days, with all of these specifications, the reviews would get down to every nut and bolt,” he said. “In this new age, now, in ‘new space’, companies like SpaceX, like Orbital Sciences[2], are building their own vehicles, and NASA is saying, ‘OK, if you give us a service meeting this type of a milestone and this level of reliability, we’ll just take it…we’re not going to investigate every nut and bolt.'”

Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX, shows off rocket engines being built at the company's headquarters near L.A. Image by Jayme Roy
Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX, shows off rocket engines being built at the company’s headquarters near L.A. Image by Jayme Roy

But the private sector isn’t simply providing lower-cost services to NASA. More fundamentally, it is disrupting the space industry by creating new technologies that make getting into space cheaper. And that is expanding the commercial, scientific and even extreme adventure possibilities of space.

Many of the country’s new space entrepreneurs hail from the tech sector and some, like Elon Musk, rocketed to prominence with startup success in the early days of e-commerce.

“Elon Musk didn’t come from an aerospace background, he is a computer scientist by training,” said Silicon Valley venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, a SpaceX board member and investor in the company. “And he thinks about the rocket like computer scientists would – modular reuse, modern programming languages, everything.”

Clearly, there are risks associated with these new, for-profit space ventures. Not only does the threat of commercial failure loom large, so too is the threat of accidents aboard the rocket ships gearing up to fly wealthy thrill-seekers and space buffs dozens of miles above earth.

“If we fly in space often enough, people will die. That’s not a pleasant truth but it is the truth,” said Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR Aerospace[3], a Mojave, California company that, like Virgin Galactic, is also accepting deposits for rides aboard its rocket ship.

Tragically, this sentiment became reality on Oct. 31, 2014, when Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight, killing Michael Alsbury, a Scotts Valley native and one of the two pilots on board.

The disaster came just three days after the explosion of an unmanned Orbital Sciences rocket in Virginia. The rocket was scheduled to make a resupply mission to the International Space Station, as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo program, under which the company, along with its competitor, SpaceX, had won lucrative, billion-dollar contracts to haul cargo to and from the ISS.

Hubbard said the disasters occurred in two different areas of the private space sector, so the impact of the crashes should be examined separately.

“NASA’s commercial cargo and crew program represents one industry and it has almost nothing to do with the Virgin Galactic crash, which has to do with suborbital space tourism,” Hubbard said. “Orbital Sciences will have to stand down and evaluate their vehicle until they fly again. I don’t see NASA deviating in any substantial way from their commercial cargo and commercial crew program.”

Hubbard served as the sole NASA official on the investigation into the February 2003 crash of the Space Shuttle Columbia, which killed all seven crew members.

He said he thinks that the crash of SpaceShipTwo will not derail the launch of space tourism, adding that the risks are not unlike those of the early days of aviation.

“I think within the next five years, you will see space tourism,” he said. “Flying cross country is safer per seat mille that it is per seat mile driving in your car, but that occurred over a period of 100 years, from Kitty Hawk to now.”

“And I think Richard Branson will need to restore the faith of his paying customers that he has a safe operation,” he added. “But I don’t see the interest in suborbital space tourism going away.”

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