Geeks in space

Paul Allen was first. Amazon's Jeff Bezos is in the wings. Why do tech luminaries want off Earth?

Jim Hu Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jim Hu
covers home broadband services and the Net's portal giants.
Jim Hu
6 min read
Since Anousheh Ansari was a little girl, she dreamed of exploring space. Then she became one of the most successful female IT entrepreneurs in history and decided to do something about it.

The Iranian-born electrical engineer made a fortune at the height of the Internet bubble, selling start-up Telecom Technologies to Sonus Networks for an estimated $440 million. In May, she joined the growing ranks of IT luminaries jumping into the space race, lending her name and undisclosed financial backing to the $10 million contest now known as the Ansari X Prize challenge.


What's new:
A growing number of IT luminaries, including Paul Allen and Amazon's Jeff Bezos, are jumping into the space race.

Bottom line:
Many tech players have pined for the day when space travel will become affordable for average folks, and the bridge from technology entrepreneur to space voyager is natural.

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The contest made history this week, when Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's SpaceShipOne craft sped 100km above Earth's surface and then landed safely in the Mojave desert for the second time in less than a week--a feat some believe could help spawn a commercial spaceflight industry.

"After we sold the company, Anousheh and I shared a passion to get involved in space activity," said brother-in-law and Telecom Technologies co-founder Amir Ansari. "But for the longest time it seemed like a wish list you wanted to do but couldn't take seriously."

What is it with deep-pocket geeks and space?

Whether you blame the Apollo moon landings, Isaac Asimov, "Star Trek" or the sheer giddiness of all that instant money, it's clear that wealthy tech celebrities have the space bug. The list of IT veterans turned space junkies includes Allen, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, PayPal founder Elon Musk and Id Software's John Carmack, to name a few.

The bridge from technology entrepreneur to space voyager seems natural. Many tech players have publicly pined for the day when space travel will become affordable for average folks.

"I think there's a strong natural affinity for tech entrepreneurs to space," said Musk, who's backing a venture called SpaceX. "A lot of people read science fiction when they were kids. They might not have gone to Trekkie conventions, but they sure watched the series."

Others cite NASA's early space efforts in the 1960s as a major inspiration. After SpaceShipOne landed successfully for the first time last week, a radiant Allen entered a packed press room wearing a Seattle Seahawk's cap, the NFL team that he owns, and a boyish grin.

"As a kid I followed the golden age of the space program," Allen mused. "In grade school they'd wheel in a TV on this big stand, and we'd sit there in class watching the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches."

Secret designs
Some ventures, such as Bezos' Blue Origin are shrouded in secrecy. Bezos has rarely spoken publicly about his ambitions, but he fielded a question on the subject Tuesday at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco.

Although he would not talk about the topic at length, he said that like others with means and passions such as art collecting, his passion is for space travel. And when asked if he would travel in space, he said: "Yes, I plan to get up there."

Some details about Blue Origin appear on the company's Web site.

"Blue Origin is developing vehicles and technologies that, over time, will help enable an enduring human presence in space," the site reads. "We are currently working to develop a crewed, suborbital launch system that emphasizes safety and low cost of operations."

An Amazon spokeswoman confirmed Bezos is spending an undisclosed amount of his personal wealth on the company, but declined to elaborate on its objectives.

Others are more candid.

Jim Benson, a computer industry veteran who sold his software business Compusearch in 1995, created a company called SpaceDev that, among other things, produced SpaceShipOne's rocket motor using a propulsion system based on rubber and laughing gas.

Musk's SpaceX plans to fund its research into interplanetary exploration by creating rockets that haul payload, such as satellites, into orbit. Carmack's Armadillo Aerospace, meanwhile, was one team that vied for the Ansari X Prize, but could not get its project together in time to beat out Allen.

How to pay the bills
Space flight is expensive, so figuring out a way to pay for research and eventually liftoff requires business savvy. Lining up financing can become complicated by the number of ideas being floated around that intentionally push the envelope, spooking potential investors.

Commercial contracts are on the way that could help finance further private spaceflight projects. In one of the first such deals, the SpaceShipOne team announced last week that it licensed the craft's design to British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic division will begin offering rides in 2007 for a hefty price tag.

Private contests like the Ansari X Prize could help bridge the gap until such commercial services become more practical. Last month, Las Vegas hotel magnate Robert Bigelow announced a $50 million prize to the creators of the first privately funded spaceship to reach orbit.

X Prize organizers said their contest will now evolve into an annual event dubbed the X Prize Cup. In a press release, X Prize founder Peter Diamandis said he hopes the event will develop into a spectator sport, much like Grand Prix racing.

But tickets and prize money can't be expected to offset all of the research and development costs. Allen's SpaceShipOne reportedly cost more than $20 million--double the purse for winning the X Prize contest. As a result, private fortunes are often the only grease for plans that seem so far out there that few are willing to underwrite them.

SpaceDev's Benson made his money developing software in the days of mainframe and "mini" computers. He finds parallels between the development of the space program and the evolution of computers and believes the space industry thinks from mainframe ideas rather than the smaller, faster and cheaper mentality of the PC industry.

"When I founded SpaceDev, it was specifically to bring the microcomputer way of thinking to the space industry," Benson said. "We have a huge industry that's totally risk adverse. Everyone's afraid to be innovative."

Benson enjoys the notoriety from his association with SpaceShipOne, but designing commercial rocket motors only temporarily pays the bills. He's setting his sights much farther into the outer reaches of space to find what he calls "white gold in space"--water.

The idea sounds at once outlandish and startlingly simple. Between Earth and Mars lies an asteroid belt that's much smaller than a similar belt separating Mars from Jupiter. Within the belt, Benson estimates, 20 percent of the particles are dormant comets in which a high percentage of the orbital rocks contain ice under their surface. Benson wants to send a small space miner that can land onto the surface of asteroids and drill a meter into the surface to extract the ice reserves.

What's the significance of ice? Benson believes it will become the rocket fuel for space travel to Mars. His idea is to harness solar power, concentrate its heat, and boil the mined comet ice, powering satellites and space ships with a steam engine. This would let spaceships refuel en route to more distant destinations without lugging up extra reserves.

"I want be the Standard Oil of space," Benson said. "White gold, not black gold. White gold."

Then there's Musk. After eBay acquired PayPal for $1.5 billion in 2002, he assembled a team of longtime aerospace engineers and created SpaceX to develop rockets that would cart satellites and other payloads into space.

Musk has already sunk millions of his PayPal earnings, and expects to invest up to $100 million, into the company.

Longer term, Musk hopes SpaceX will gain enough momentum to fund more ambitious businesses such as space tourism, so the company can let humans orbit Earth.

Musk's ambitions are consistent among many tech veterans, whose aspirations have been fueled by childhood dreams and geek fantasy. If they get their wish, humans may find Earth a bit confining.

"I would like to see SpaceX play an important role for humanity to become a multi-planetary species," Musk said. "There's one obvious contender for humans, and that's Mars."

News.com's Stefanie Olsen contributed to this report.