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May 2011 — Web Exclusive

A New Plan For Space

“Now is the time for Texas to decide how to become competitive in this new arena.”

– Richard Garriott

An Interview with Richard Garriott, Part 3

A rocket motor is put through its paces at the SpaceX test facility in McGregor, Texas.

by Bruce Wright

In the last two issues of Fiscal Notes, we spoke with Richard Garriott, computer game pioneer, investor and private astronaut, about NASA’s new initiative to place greater reliance on private contractors for space exploration, and what it might mean for Texas. In our final installment, we discuss Texas’ prospects in the emerging private space industry — and Garriott’s own plans for a unique new sport.

Richard Garriott

Richard Garriott

We’ve mentioned Dallas’ Armadillo Aerospace. [See Part II of this interview.] And I believe that SpaceX has an engine test facility in Texas.

They do.

More in the Doers and Dreamers series:

What else is happening in private space activity in Texas right now?

There are a couple of even smaller rocket companies here in Texas.

And the same group of us that started the original X Prize, which was a $10 million prize for the first private vehicle to fly twice into space, put together the Google Lunar X Prize. Google’s put up $25 million for the first private [unmanned] rover to travel across the moon and send back high-definition video. There are a number of teams competing based here in Texas.

There’s no question that the skill set to compete exists in Houston. And that work force is either going to be reapplied somewhere or be laid off, you know, pretty soon [due to the conclusion of the Shuttle program].

And so now is the time for Texas to decide how to become competitive in this new arena. It’s great that SpaceX has a test facility here in Texas. But SpaceX is based in L.A.

We need more companies founded here, in Texas. And we have the skills. We just have to encourage the formation of rocket development companies in Texas.

And how could Texas help with that? What would we do?

Well, that’s an interesting question. First I think it would start with a high-level vision statement, where someone, the governor perhaps, says look, Texas needs to be part of this new economy, like we’re already doing with clean energy and a number of other things.

If we want to be a competitor in the new space economy, that would be where we need to start. Then you have to decide on a plan of action for how you can pull it off, what incentives you put in place and what companies you want to attract.

[It could involve] going to a lot of the prime contractors down there in Houston and saying, “Hey, the governor’s going to host a roundtable where we discuss your skills and capabilities, and what we need to put together a new company that can take on the challenge of being a leader in the new space economy.”

What can be done to spur greater interest in the public? Can anything be done to revive the Apollo spirit?

I think we do have a generation that honestly doesn’t have a strong interest in space, which is very, very different from those of us who grew up during Apollo.

“That’s the main problem with a government space program: It makes spaceflight so rare that everyone just gives up. No one believes it’s something they can aspire to.”

– Richard Garriott

What I think is going to [revive interest] is what I call the barnstorming era of space, and that is almost upon us. We’ll see many people leaving the Earth, starting to do wild, crazy, often dangerous and sometimes fatal things, privately — so it’s not one of these things where every time we crash a shuttle we take everything offline for five years and debate who’s at fault. It’s a private individual taking their own private risks, and sometimes they succeed gloriously and sometimes they don’t, gloriously.

And I think that within three or four years we’re going to start seeing safe, rapid-fire opportunities for suborbital space tourism — not just from Virgin Galactic or Space Adventures, but from two or three other competitors that come out on our heels.

Right around that same time, or within a year of that, we’re going to have companies like XCOR not only making suborbital hops, but also looking at high-speed point-to-point trips.

And so, just like in the barnstorming era of airplanes, we’re going to see people starting to do clever, thoughtful, unique things with rockets.

As soon as this cost thing flips, which I think will happen in about 10 years, people are going to see entrepreneurs going and doing stuff in space and funding their own trips. They’re going to go stay and live in space, not because they’re wealthy or super scientists, not because they’re backed by a government, but because they have kind of a cool idea, and somebody, some angel investor, gave them the $10 million they needed, which is not an outrageous amount of money to get behind an actual good idea for a business.

And as soon as that begins to happen, people are going to go, “Wait, I can do that too!”

Right now, students — even those who do think about space as being something they would love to do — very quickly realize the probabilities [of going into space] are so heavily stacked against them that they give up.

That’s the main problem with a government space program: It makes spaceflight so rare that everyone just gives up. No one believes it’s something they can personally, practically aspire to.

Speaking of barnstorming, would you like to tell us a little about your future plans?

Of course, I want to go back to space. But I spent most of my money taking this rocket ride. If I had the money I’d go every chance I could.

So I’m asking myself, how can I get back to space? And, of course, I’m looking forward to riding on a suborbital rocket, which is much more affordable — but that’s only four or so minutes in space.

So I’d really like to do something a little more interesting. And I’ve concluded that “something” is space diving. What I mean by that is to ride a suborbital rocket up to somewhere between 50 and 100 kilometers, jump out wearing a spacesuit, and then, when you safely reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and get down to a low enough altitude and slow enough speed, to deploy a traditional parachute and land on the ground like a skydiver.

Our partnership with Armadillo Aerospace makes this particularly feasible.

The Armadillo vehicle is basically a pogo stick — it goes straight up and it comes straight down, and you can put a crew capsule on top of it or not. You could, basically, lie on top with your spacesuit and your parachute, go up to space, and when the engines throttle down, step off. The spacesuit was your cabin, so to speak. You’d reenter without the rocket and parachute down.

So far, this is mostly speculation. But Armadillo and Space Adventures have talked about it. I have actually put money into the development of space diving suits, so it’s something we’re seriously pursuing.

What do you think time frame is on that?

Very similar to that for suborbital rockets in general. I think it’s three or so years.

Finally, what would be your advice to young Texans who are interested in exploring careers in private space?

I think the good news about careers in space these days is how many new opportunities are going to be unfolding.

I believe that the democratization of access to space, which comes through the privatization of the tools needed to reach space, is going to create an explosion of new and fascinating job opportunities in everything from building hardware to operating experiments in space.

To get there, we’re going to have to go through a tumultuous period of realigning a lot of the traditional aerospace companies into a more commercially competitive arrangement. The result of that, though, will be that employment in this sector will go up, and I believe significantly.

And that will be especially true for young people who have the vision and passion for doing things in a new way. I think the things that will be rewarded in this next era will be the tasks that people once thought weren’t possible.

Five or 10 years ago, I don’t think anybody would have believed that Armadillo Aerospace would be flying a rocket that could reach even suborbital space six times in a day with no refurbishment other than refueling.

I think that people had never seriously thought that the Skylon team, which is trying to create a single-stage orbital vehicle, had a prayer, and now they’re slowly convincing their skeptics.

And there’s going to be another X Prize for energy-beamed propulsion, where you don’t have to take all that fuel with you as you launch. Both fairly traditional rockets as well as fairly exotic rockets will now begin to emerge.

Thank you for speaking with us today.

My pleasure. FN

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