Private Enterprise (in Space) - Entrepreneur Week


The Falcon 9 rocket, developed by private company, Space X. Photo by Phil Plait.

Written by: Hannah Borenstein

For many, the United States has become a boiling pot for cynicism in regards to entrepreneurial ambitions. New business models, investment tactics — innovative strategies in general – are wont to be received with a slew of degrading concerns. There’s the all-knowing predecessor (“Have you considered the economic climate?”), the downright rude supervisor (“Are you serious?”), and the overbearing neurotic mother (“But honey, what about the money?”).

Some entrepreneurs are channeling their ventures elsewhere such as the intangible space of the web or other countries, and now outer space, which is really elsewhere. Despite the otherworldly nature of the galaxies, the central dichotomy between private control and lack of public funding is ever present.

On this past Tuesday at 3:44 AM, the Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The ship was built by SpaceX, a company established in 2002 by PayPal founder, Elon Musk. The Falcon 9, holding a small amount of cargo, is headed towards the International Space Station, where astronauts intend to unload supplies. Upon successful completion, SpaceX will be the first commercial (non-government operated) spacecraft to dock at the station. Not to mention, they will receive a $1.6 billion contract for additional missions.

At the news conference for the launch, Musk publicly noted, “We’re really at the dawn of a new era of space exploration, and one where there’s a much bigger role for commercial companies.”

SpaceX may be the first, but other private organizations such as XCOR, Virgin Galactic, and Space Adventures, are investing in the space industry as well. For a mere $200,000 even ordinary, plainclothes folks like movie star Ashton Kutcher, have been able to sign up for their very own outer-space joy ride.

These companies appear to be making the right moves, because as the other main story The New York Times ran this week indicated, many publicly-run scientific organizations are lacking finances.

Three American astronomers, Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt, and Adam G. Riess, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for reaffirming the presence of dark energy, are unable to continue leading the research probing for dark energy’s effects on the cosmos.

The culprit? U.S. government funding, or lack thereof. The project is now going to be carried out primarily by the European Space Agency, and American scientists have growing concerns about the future of potential research. The fact that the largest centers in the world for researching dark matter are in Italy, Canada, and Japan is no mistake – their governments are just financially supporting them.

Elsewhere in the Galaxy, James Cameron and Google CEO Larry Page are investing in an asteroid mining company, Planetary Resources Inc. that will extract valuable resources from outer space. The plan is a multi-billion dollar project, where recent estimates predict that a near-Earth asteroid could be controlled for about $2.6 billion.

Meanwhile, in March, Fermilab (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory) was forced to shut down an experiment relating to neutrinos because they lacked the $1.3 billion needed from the Energy Department, who were at one point their greatest funder.

The future of space exploration remains vastly unknown with entrepreneurial interests in tourism, resource acquisition, and research development. The recent means for profitability within the United States have been within the emerging private companies, while public organizations are lacking capital to compete. The conditions of the public/private binary structure we earthlings face here at home appear to be present even when the industrial pursuits are focused outside of our world.