Restaurant at end of universe not so far off

Executives and government officials discuss commercializing space exploration. Hint: There will be a Starbucks. Photos: Soon-to-be-bustling space hubs?

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Forget pigs, we're headed into the age of Starbucks in space.

According to entrepreneurs and government officials at the Space 2006 conference here, tourists rocketing into suborbit in the coming years will need to get caffeinated somehow.

To wit: The theme at the three-day space-exploration conference is commercializing space exploration, and many executives and government officials here are hashing out the viability of such a proposition. The list of speakers reflects as much. Everyone from search giant Google to space-tourism outfits Virgin Galactic and SpaceX is here.

And if NASA's recent bout of private-industry initiatives is any indication, the dawn of a new space economy is under way.

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"For us to realize the sustainability of space exploration, we've got to explore how we can leverage the private sector. That is the byword at NASA," said Pete Worden, director of NASA Ames Research Center, while delivering an opening address Tuesday at the annual conference.

That the conference is being held in Silicon Valley for the first time is no coincidence. NASA has lined up many partnerships with entrepreneurs and technology companies in the area, including Mountain View, Calif.-based Google. According to Worden, the technology and venture capital prowess here in Silicon Valley will be essential to the coming space age.

In what many called a milestone for the industry, NASA in August awarded nearly $278 million to El Segundo, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), as well as $207 million to Oklahoma-based Rockplane Kistler, to build new commercial flight systems for the International Space Station over the next four years, under a project known as the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS). NASA and SpaceX (a venture backed by Paypal co-founder Elon Musk) also have a two-year deal to research space tourism possibilities.

"We're talking about building a new commercial space economy."
--Chris Kemp, director of strategic business development at NASA Ames Research Center

"We're talking about building a new commercial space economy," said Chris Kemp, director of strategic business development at NASA Ames.

In the mold of a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, NASA Ames has also started a private equity fund called Red Planet Capital, which will fund small start-ups in the fields of nanotechnology, robotics, intelligent systems and high-speed networking to support future commercial space flight.

As for Google, NASA announced a high-profile alliance with the search giant in September 2005, but few details were given at the time. Nearly a year later, the two organizations are close to finalizing a so-called Space Act agreement, according to Kemp, who oversees the alliance for NASA.

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