Space: The Final Frontier of Profit?

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal on February 15, 2010. Article by Peter Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation.

This article is a part of a debate on the pros and cons of commercializing the cosmos; valuing asteroids at $20 trillion each. Peter Diamandis makes the case for private space. You can join the debate here.

Government agencies have dominated space exploration for three decades. But in a new plan unveiled in President Barack Obama's 2011 budget earlier this month, a new player has taken center stage: American capitalism and entrepreneurship. The plan lays the foundation for the future Google, Cisco and Apple of space to be born, drive job creation and open the cosmos for the rest of us.

Two fundamental realities now exist that will drive space exploration forward. First, private capital is seeing space as a good investment, willing to fund individuals who are passionate about exploring space, for adventure as well as profit. What was once affordable only by nations can now be lucrative, public-private partnerships.

Second, companies and investors are realizing that everything we hold of value—metals, minerals, energy and real estate—are in near-infinite quantities in space. As space transportation and operations become more affordable, what was once seen as a wasteland will become the next gold rush. Alaska serves as an excellent analogy. Once thought of as "Seward's Folly" (Secretary of State William Seward was criticized for overpaying the sum of $7.2 million to the Russians for the territory in 1867), Alaska has since become a billion-dollar economy.

The same will hold true for space. For example, there are millions of asteroids of different sizes and composition flying throughout space. One category, known as S-type, is composed of iron, magnesium silicates and a variety of other metals, including cobalt and platinum. An average half-kilometer S-type asteroid is worth more than $20 trillion.

Technology is reaching a critical point. Moore's Law has given us exponential growth in computing technology, which has led to exponential growth in nearly every other technological industry. Breakthroughs in rocket propulsion will allow us to go farther, faster and more safely into space.

Perhaps the most important factor is the empowerment of youth over the graybeards now running the show. The average age of the engineers who built Apollo was 28; the average age in the aerospace workforce is now over 50. Young doers have less to risk when proposing bold solutions.

This is not to say that the government will have no role in the next 50 years in space. Governments will retain the critical work of pure science, and of answering some of the biggest unknowns: Is there life on Mars, or around other stars? Governments will play the important role of big customer as they get out of the operations business. Private industry routinely takes technologies pioneered by the government—like air mail, computers and the Internet—and turns them into affordable, reliable and robust industries.

The challenge faced by all space-related ventures is the high cost of launching into orbit. When the U.S. space shuttle stands down later this year, NASA will need to send American astronauts to launch aboard the Russian Soyuz at a price of more than $50 million per person. The space shuttle, on the other hand, costs between $750 million to $2 billion per flight (for up to seven astronauts) depending on the number of launches each year. Most people don't realize that the major cost of a launch is labor. Fuel is less than 2%, while the standing army of people and infrastructure is well over 80%. The annual expense NASA bears for the shuttle is roughly $4 billion, whatever the number of launches.

The government's new vision will mean the development of multiple operators, providing the U.S. redundancy as well as a competitive market that will drive down the cost of getting you and me to orbit. One of the companies I co-founded, Space Adventures, has already brokered the flight of eight private citizens to orbit, at a cost of roughly $50 million per person. In the next five years we hope to drive the price below $20 million, and eventually below $5 million.

Within the next several decades, privately financed research outposts will be a common sight in the night sky. The first one-way missions to Mars will be launched. Mining operations will spring up on the moon. More opportunities we have yet to even comprehend will come out of the frontier. One thing is certain: The next 50 years will be the period when we establish ourselves as a space-faring civilization.

As the generation that has never known a world without "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" matures, it will not be content to watch only government astronauts walk and work on the moon. A "let's just go do it" mentality is emerging, and it is that attitude that will bring the human race off this planet and open the final frontier.

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