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Business in space looks golden, says Lord British

The son of an astronaut and a former space tourist, Richard Garriott thinks going to space can deliver profits. Biological research and solar farms could be the place to start.

Richard Garriott, aka Lord British, thinks there is a huge amount of opportunity for business in space.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas--When Richard Garriott went to space, he lost money on the deal. Next time, he wants to make a profit.

In October 2008, Garriott, a well-known video game designer, traveled as a space tourist to the International Space Station.

The son of a NASA astronaut who grew up thinking everyone goes to space--because his neighbors all had been--his dream of following in his father's footsteps was dashed when he learned as a teenager that his eyes disqualified him for the job. "Being told I was not going to be allowed to go into space," Garriott said, "was what set me on my course to prove them wrong."

As a game designer, he made a fortune, and that money, along with the emergence of a space tourism industry, rekindled his wishes. To make it to space, he had to pony up tens of millions of dollars. But as a savvy businessman, he raised some of that back with a series of commercial experiments. Just not enough to cover the whole price of his ticket.

But now, Garriott said during a presentation at South by Southwest here today, there are unprecedented business opportunities in space, many that will benefit NASA and many others that could become highly lucrative for the companies that understand how to work today's booming public/private partnerships.

According to Garriott, who is also known in the gaming business as Lord British, today's booming private space business means that the cost of a launch is being radically slashed from the days when only governments sent rockets into space. Reductions in those costs by a factor of between ten and 100--due to competition in the private space industry and the fact that NASA no longer is building its own spacecraft--will open up the opportunity for commercial activities that can go alongside the NASA projects on those ships.

To begin with, explained Garriott--who was the subject of a documentary on his trip to space, and who is part of the company Space Adventures, as well as a member of the NASA Civilian Oversight Council--the advent of a number of companies able to produce rockets means that NASA may now buy from a company like Boeing once and then turn to a competitor next time if its price is lower. And because of that, these companies are being forced to bring their costs down in order to have a chance at government business.

Another advance is that companies like SpaceX have developed boosters that can be recovered and reused after launch--unlike traditional space missions which required new boosters each time NASA sent one up. That is yet another factor in the rapid and dramatic drop in the cost of a launch. Garriott said that it should be possible to launch rockets into space for just fractions of what today's space vehicles, with their disposable boosters, cost.

And this may become even cheaper, Garriott said, if next-generation boosters are capable of landing themselves under their own power rather than having to be recovered far from the launch site. "The costs go from the hundreds of millions down to the ones of millions," he said. "That would have made [my trip to space] profitable."

Protein crystal growth and vaccine research

When he went to space the first time, Garriott was able to raise some funds by bringing along experiments in protein crystal growth. But he only had the one mission.

An image taken during Garriott's Soyuz rocket training. Garriott was one of the world's first space tourists, paying for a ticket to the International Space Station.

If the cost truly does drop into the low seven figures, Garriott suggested, it would instantly become profitable to conduct significantly more experiments, work that could easily bring in tens of millions of dollars. Among the projects that could quickly be profitable for those willing to invest would be continued work on protein crystal growth--given that microgravity seems to generate much larger, clearer crystals than on Earth--as well as work on the development of vaccines.

"It turns out that biological research is the first low-hanging fruit," Garriott said, "one of the first businesses that can be built on top of these capabilities."

Another stems from a project that has been undertaken by the Japanese to power a city by building a huge solar farm in space at a cost of around $30 billion by 2030. Garriott said that in his view, the Japanese have adopted "too grand a first goal" because it will likely be too hard to put that much mass and assembly into space.

But he does think space-bound solar power generation is profitable, albeit at a much smaller scale. So Garriott promoted the idea of putting up single-launch power generators capable of beaming power to, for example, forward military bases. "You can't power a city," he said, "because it's not as cheap [at that scale] as coal. But it's competitive to the military front lines."

At the same time, asteroids present a potential celestial gold mine. One of the benefits asteroids offer--especially because there are countless of them not far from Earth--is that it can often be possible to see through a telescope the kinds of materials they contain. That means that businesses could target specific asteroids for mining projects, particularly because cheap launches could make it profitable to begin exploring the rocks for resources.

Three decade plan

At the end of his talk, Garriott presented what he said is his 30-year plan for space exploration and business development.

In the first ten years, he said, sub-orbital tourism will take off, along with commercial low-Earth orbit research. Though NASA may take the lead on investigating asteroids, Garriott added, he expects that work to be handed off to commercial entities in the first decade.

During the second ten years, private companies may have the opportunity to help build lunar research stations that could serve as outposts for future Mars missions. As the same time, Garriott predicted, NASA could begin offering commercial prizes for building a supply chain on the surface of Mars. If, for example, NASA offered a billion dollars to the first team to build a survivable igloo on Mars, he suggested, business would jump at the chance--and the potential profits down the line.

Finally, by the third decade, NASA could begin leading mankind's charge to be a multi-planet species. But rather than sending people to Mars and then bringing them back, Garriott said it would be far more efficient and economical to create the infrastructure that will support humans on Mars and then begin to colonize the Red Planet. Trying to get people off Mars and return them is almost as hard as getting them there in the first place, Garriott said, adding, "I don't think it's worth it."

Plus, he added, finding volunteers to be Mars pioneers should be no problem. Assuming that the support infrastructure was in place, Garriott posited, many people would agree to spend the remainder of their lives on Mars. And to prove his point, he asked who in the room would volunteer for such a radical change of lifestyle. More than half the people in the room raised their hands.