The private space race takes off

Within the next decade, the stereotypical space traveler may no longer be a square-jawed fighter pilot but a wealthy Internet geek with deep pockets.

Or at least that’s what a crop of gutsy space entrepreneurs hope.

For half a century, venturing into space has been the primary domain of governments that can afford to spend billions of dollars to develop and send massive rockets into orbit. But modern-day industrialists believe a privately funded commercial space industry is poised to blast off.

With technological advances that they say will make rocketry more affordable, companies are popping up nationwide and focusing on an array of ventures, from lifting “space tourists” briefly into orbit to launching satellites and cargo far into space.

“It’s a pivotal time in human evolution,” said Peter H. Diamandis, chief executive of the X Prize Foundation, a nonprofit group that sponsored a $10-million competition to develop a private manned rocket. “Within the next few years, companies will open space to the masses, as opposed to the few. With that change brings a tectonic shift in the way we as human beings live.”

In 2004, a team led by Burt Rutan, a maverick Mojave Desert aerospace engineer, won the $10-million purse by sending a test pilot to the edge of space, where humans can feel weightlessness.

The private space race was officially on.

Diamandis takes pride in starting the mad dash. After all, it was his goal. He knew people weren’t going to invest in private space unless there was an incentive.

That’s when he thought of the Spirit of St. Louis.

“People don’t remember this, but the Spirit of St. Louis came as a result of a contest,” Diamandis said of the airplane in which Charles Lindbergh made the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris. The 1927 feat won Lindbergh a $25,000 prize. “That’s what we needed in our industry.”

Diamandis, a physician by trade, is like many in the private space field. He’s a baby boomer with a zeal for science fiction and a lifelong desire to be an astronaut. The walls of his Playa Vista office are cluttered with photos and memorabilia. Star Trek trinkets are stacked high, along with Yoda toys and Buzz Aldrin-inspired G.I. Joe action figures.

“I grew up in an era when flights into space were routine,” he said. “We’ve lost that over the years. And that’s why we need individuals to step in.”

Aiming high

Rutan’s prizewinning spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, caught the eye of British billionaire Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways.

Known as a maverick himself, Branson wanted to work with Rutan on a much bigger rocket that could send not only a pilot into space but fare-paying passengers as well. Rutan began working on the project in the Mojave Desert with his company, Scaled Composites.

The enterprise was shrouded in secrecy for years. Then in 2007, during a test of the spaceship’s propulsion system, an explosion killed three workers and injured three others.

The blast uncovered the secret project and cast a glaring light on the inherent risks of rocketry. Rocket development, even backed with government resources and financing, has been fraught with disappointments.

Despite the accident, Branson and Rutan continued the project. Last month they unveiled their new rocket, dubbed SpaceShipTwo, and its carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, at an airport in the Mojave Desert.

Rutan had come up with a novel idea: Instead of trying to launch a rocket directly into space, the carrier craft, which resembles a flying catamaran, would lift SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of 50,000 feet. At that point, SpaceShipTwo -- carrying six paying passengers and two pilots -- would separate and blast off to about 325,000 feet, or 60 miles, above the Earth’s surface.

At that suborbital altitude, passengers experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth. The price for the experience: $200,000.

Virgin Galactic, the space travel company that Branson created to operate the flights, has taken reservations and deposits from 300 people. Virgin Galactic hopes to make its first passenger flight from a “spaceport” in New Mexico by 2011.

To Sheila Kessler, 65, of San Clemente, the endeavor is an opportunity to live out her dream of becoming an astronaut. Kessler, who owns a business coaching corporate executives, put down a $100,000 deposit to be a passenger.

As a young woman in the 1960s, Kessler applied to be a NASA astronaut. She made it through the first two rounds of cuts -- government officials even interviewed her neighbors to get security background on her, she said. But in the end, she didn’t make it.

“I knew I was being rather ambitious to apply, especially at that time,” she said. “Of course, I was disappointed. But here we are all these years later and I have an opportunity again.”

A young industry

Other privately funded companies are hoping to make a run at carrying cargo into space. XCOR Aerospace Inc., another Mojave-based company, agreed last year to lease one of its forthcoming suborbital space planes to a South Korean aerospace research organization in a deal worth about $28 million. The organization plans to use the vehicle to send South Koreans into space and to conduct environmental research.

The deal was a sign that money could be made from commercial space travel.

“The private space travel industry is really still in its infancy stages,” said John Spencer, president of the Space Tourism Society in Los Angeles. “But I believe that by the end of this next decade we’ll see thousands of people being sent to space.”

That’s a pretty heady prediction, considering that only about 500 astronauts have been launched into the cosmos since space travel began in the 1960s. Only seven of those were private individuals. The vast majority were U.S. or Russian government-trained astronauts.

Space Adventures, a Vienna, Va., company, has organized trips to the International Space Station for space enthusiasts who could afford a ticket for a seat in a three-person Soyuz rocket owned by the Russian government. Its first client was Dennis A. Tito, a California multimillionaire who founded Wilshire Associates Inc., an investment firm in Santa Monica.

In 2001, Tito was the world’s first official space tourist, shelling out $20 million for the ride.

Tito, who was 60 at the time, spent eight days at the International Space Station with two cosmonauts. It was the fulfillment of a childhood dream, he said.

Tito was trained as an aerospace engineer and worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge before starting his investment firm, which represents more than $8 trillion in assets.

“The instant I was in outer space, I achieved my life’s goal,” he said. “Everybody should experience what I experienced.”

Since his flight, Tito said, he’s been impressed with the progress in the commercial space industry. He calls it the “big new industry for the 21st century.”

“As long as people are adventurous and have a healthy human curiosity, the commercial human space industry will thrive,” he said.

While space tourism has grabbed the headlines, the private space industry has been eyeing another potentially lucrative business that could open up with the last flight of NASA’s space shuttle, scheduled for this year.

When the shuttle program is mothballed, the U.S. will have no way to travel to the International Space Station other than to take a ride on a Russian Soyuz rocket. Russia charges NASA $51 million to carry an astronaut to the space station.

Analysts say ferrying cargo and astronauts to space could be a profitable venture. But for many entrepreneurs, developing rockets is more about fulfilling a lifelong dream.

“If you’re in this industry, you have to be motivated by more than just money,” Diamandis said.

‘Inflection point’

Typical space entrepreneurs are known risk-takers and unconventional thinkers who amassed fortunes in other industries. And they have always had a fascination with space.

Elon Musk, a 38-year-old who made a fortune when he sold online payment business PayPal Inc. in 2002, started a company that hopes to develop and launch rockets that can carry satellites into space at a fraction of the cost of the current generation of spacecraft.

Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, has won a $1.6-billion NASA contract for 12 flights to transport cargo, a role the space shuttle now fills. The rocket that will power the missions, the Falcon 9, is expected to make its inaugural flight sometime this year.

“We’re at a historic inflection point,” Musk said, noting that the U.S. space agency is increasingly focusing on deep-space exploration. “NASA has essentially given up low-Earth orbit. It’s important that we can fill their shoes and succeed.”

He knows that if SpaceX falls short, it could send tremors through the privately funded commercial space industry.

Musk envisions eventually developing a craft that could take astronauts as well as supplies to the International Space Station, a feat that so far has been the domain of U.S. and Russian space programs.

Other wealthy entrepreneurs are also following their lifelong pursuit of space travel.

Robert Bigelow, founder of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, has built and launched prototypes of inflatable modules that could serve as orbital hotels and research labs. And Inc. founder Jeff Bezos is building a spacecraft that, like Virgin Galactic’s, is designed to take passengers into suborbital space.

Several firms are eyeing another area of space travel: developing vehicles that can land on the moon. Masten Space Systems Inc. of Mojave and Armadillo Aerospace of Rockwall, Texas, recently won a contest sponsored by Century City-based Northrop Grumman Corp. to build a lunar lander.

The two winning companies each flew their lunar lander rocket vehicles twice in two hours, hovering between a pair of landing pads for at least 180 seconds, to qualify for the $1-million top prize.

Diamandis of X Prize believes that private industry shouldn’t stop at the moon. For one thing, he said, there are endless resources of minerals and rare-earth elements that can be extracted from asteroids and other planets.

“Our destiny as human beings is to explore,” Diamandis added. “Now the individual has the power that a government once had.”