Get a space entrepreneur talking about the “why” of space travel, and some grand ambitions begin to surface. “Of course, there are many people who ask: Why spend anything at all, with all the problems we have on Earth?” Musk says. “But not only are there significant things we can learn about the universe and our place in it when we go to space, there are things we learn about the Earth.” He points to climate change, ozone depletion, pollution. “And if you really want to go big picture here,” adds Musk, who himself clearly loves to go big picture, “I think it is actually very important that we start making progress in extending life beyond earth and we start making our own existence a multi-planetary one.”
Not that Musk is pessimistic about life on Earth. “The odds are terrific that life will make it just fine through the coming centuries,” he says, but “there’s always a chance there’s a disaster around the corner, some horrible thing that happens—like a super volcano or a killer virus or a meteorite or something, or some invention of science creates a miniature black hole.” Multi-planetary existence, according to Musk, is like a giant insurance policy for the human race. “You don’t buy life insurance because you believe you are going to die tomorrow. But you buy it to prepare for it.”
All told, private companies have more than 40 orbital spaceflights, manned and unmanned, scheduled between now and 2014. California-based Masten Space Systems, which recently won $1 million in a NASA-backed competition to simulate a lunar landing, hopes to eventually perfect its unmanned vehicle for moon exploration. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos has sent unmanned suborbital capsules into test flights over property he owns in West Texas, although he’s been quiet about long-range plans for a vertical-takeoff-and-landing private spacecraft. The Web site of his space company, Blue Origin, says it is working “patiently and step-by-step” to make spaceflight and solar-system exploration more affordable. Meanwhile, billionaire Robert Bigelow, the founder of Budget Suites of America, foresees a big demand for “space hotels” in the future and has already sent two prototype inflatable space habitats into space.
It’s true that no bride has yet reached orbit to wear Japanese designer Eri Matsui’s space wedding gown; no passengers have yet been able to honeymoon on the moon. Nonetheless, Virgin Galactic says it is right on target with plans for SpaceShipTwo, of which five more would be built if the prototype can navigate the federal regulations that govern commercial spaceflight. And just a few hangars down from SpaceShipTwo, XCOR Aerospace is working on its own suborbital rocket ship, the Lynx.
XCOR’s president, Jeff Greason, who also served on the Augustine Committee, is developing a variety of low-cost rocket engines that burn various types of fuel. Prospective private passengers, however, will be most interested in the Lynx, which seats just two people—pilot and customer. “Ours is a very different approach from Virgin Galactic’s,” the somewhat cherubic Greason explained to me late one afternoon as we sat in a fiberglass mock-up of the Lynx cockpit. “Ours will be more of a ‘Right Stuff’ experience. You’ll really feel more like an astronaut.”
But of all the entrepreneurs I spoke with, Musk was the most vocal evangelist. “Life cannot be just about solving problems,” he said. “I mean, if all we do in life is solve another bloody problem, that’s depressing. You need things that inspire people.”
Back at Scaled Composites, Tighe led me into the cockpit of SpaceShipTwo. It was a calm early morning over the Mojave, the sky above Southern California a faultless blue, as I felt the engines start up and listened to the pilots count down to liftoff. The sky began to turn cobalt, mauve, violet, indigo and then nearly black. Passing upward through 328,000 feet, I enjoyed a stunning view out the window. I could see both the peninsulas of Baja California and the San Francisco Bay area, the tip of Mount Whitney (the highest peak in the lower 48), the endless Pacific Ocean, the curvature of the Earth.
Actually, I am being inexact on a few of the details. Just like the old airliners out along the runway, SpaceShipTwo hadn’t budged an inch at the Mojave Air and Space Port. I was inside a simulator, just a few feet from the workers and rivet guns. Yet I was still captivated. Now the Earth was ringed with a faint blue halo, and it was strikingly quiet. Tighe pointed upward, and I found it hard not to share his grin. “Nice up here, yes?” he asked. I had to nod.single page