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  • The Billionaires' Club
    Posted by Frank Morring, Jr. 8:01 AM on Jan 02, 2012

    Before this new year is out, it's likely that some of the private spaceships that have been on the drawing board (or more likely in workstation CAD files) for so long will finally get off the ground.

    The SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon stack already has flown to orbit once. As early as next month it will attempt a linkup with the International Space Station.

    The Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares (formerly Taurus II) with its Cygnus cargo capsule will make its first flight. And Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo may fly for the first time as well.

    Looking at that lineup, and other "new space" vehicles that aren't quite as far along, it's striking that two of the three -- plus at least two more with a realistic chance of getting to orbit -- are run by billionaires, or at least individuals with enough cash to risk some of it on commercial human spaceflight.

    Elon Musk, the dot-com pioneer who founded SpaceX, knows the old joke about the best way to make a small fortune in space (start with a large one). Still, he's plunged ahead with enough brio and luck to be in first place in the commercial space race.

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    Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic has a long history in aviation as an airline owner. His roots in the music industry suggest he is enough of an iconoclast to take big risks on uncertain ventures, and his success suggests his hunches are often right on.

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    Two more billionaires have staked positions in the commercial space arena. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, has endowed Blue Origin with so much money that the company felt comfortable snubbing a request to testify before the House Science Committee last year, even though the panel authorizes commercial space spending for the U.S. government. His secretive operation lost a vehicle in a flight test last year, and immediately started building another one.

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    The latest spaceflight billionaire is Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who is backing Stratolaunch Systems -- a venture that includes Burt Rutan, Michael Griffin and a host of former NASA rocket engineers -- with sufficient funds to start developing an aircraft large enough to air-launch a variant of Musk's Falcon rocket. The twin-fuselage design of Allen's new aircraft harks back to the WhiteKnightTwo, another Rutan creation that will air-launch Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo on its suborbital flights for paying space tourists and scientists.

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    There are several other participants in the commercial-space competition, including Boeing, Sierra Nevada and XCor Aerospace. At Boeing, managers talk about "decision velocity" as a way to lower the cost of spaceflight by lowering the cost of management.

    But without the deep pockets of the billionaires, those companies still must answer to boards of directors and investors before taking a risk, and that cuts down the "velocity" of their decision-making.

    It will be interesting to see if members of what the Occupy Wall Street activists call "the 1%" wind up paving the way off the planet for the less-wealthy other "99%." Ultimately, it's going to take more than a lucky few billionaires to make a spaceborne economy tick.

    Tags: os99, SpaceX, Sierra-Nevada, Boeing, XCor, Stratolaunch

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