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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.


"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.

Kemp said that meshing Google's and NASA's cultures has been difficult, given natural differences in goals, but that the two organizations have tried to work out how to cross-pollinate their strengths on projects. For example, Google is trying to tap into terabytes of otherwise inaccessible data at NASA Ames and use the expertise of scientists at the research center. As a result, Google is exploring how to add other types of imagery to Google Earth. For example, users could open a map of their back yard and view compass points of magnetic north versus geographic north, according to Kemp.

"For Google, this is a way to take what NASA has and commercialize it," said Kemp.

Still, the economics of the alliance are still being worked out, like many other NASA private-industry initiatives, given government regulations and restrictions. Worden said during his speech that Google, for example, may hire NASA Ames for project development and research, but Kemp later alluded to the difficulty of such an undertaking.

A recent project by Google Earth to provide aerial imagery of Africa and the land destroyed by Hurricane Katrina required Google to write checks out to Carnegie Mellon University, which was working with NASA to produce the maps.

"There was no other way to see this happen," Kemp said. "People want to see this work better with commercial partners, but it takes the will to do it."

(Kemp spoke partly on behalf of Google Earth CTO Michael Jones, who missed his scheduled presentation.)

Still, some speakers at the conference expressed serious doubts about NASA's approach to private partnerships. Jim Muncy, president of space consulting practice PoliSpace, compared NASA's experience with the economics of private industry to that of an amphibian. He highlighted similar NASA commercial partnerships--such as

"NASA doesn't understand the economics," he said.

Nevertheless, many entrepreneurs are bulldozing forward.

Alex Tai, vice president of Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson's space-tourism venture, said during a morning panel that the company plans to launch two commercial flights a day beginning in late 2008 or early 2009. The on its SpaceShipTwo, which cost $200,000 each.

"Come with your $200,000. We'll take your money," he said.

George French, president of Rocketplane Kistler, said that the new space economy is coming about partially thanks to government funding in the form of the COTS program and partially thanks to the people he calls the "mega-angels," including Branson, Musk, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who has backed Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne suborbital commercial spacecraft.

"Starbucks will be in space. Virgin will be in space," he said.