My dream of spaceflight began at a young age. With my father being a NASA astronaut, and most all my near neighbors being either astronauts or rocket scientists, that's not too hard to fathom. But the gap between thinking you would like to go to space and arranging for such a trip is vast!
In school, my aptitude and interests ranged far and wide, and were rarely in support of that dream to go to space. Rather creating fantasy worlds on the newfangled computers that were coming out in the 1970's became my first real professional passion. I am fortunate enough to have helped start and grow the computer gaming industry and am credited with numerous awards such as a Hall of Fame induction, Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as being known as the creator of the term "Avatar" for your in game representation, and MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) games. With this success, I have taken what I earned in the games industry to open a path for my other life dream, going into space.
Opening the door to space for civilians such as myself was not easy! It was a plan that failed for me numerous times. But with each failure, I learned an important lesson, about what was and was not possible. With each attempt, I refined my plans, and dove in again, generally making it a bit father with each attempt. But the real breakthrough came when I attended my first Explorers Club Annual Dinner ... The Explorers Club attracts explorers and expedition support teams from around the globe. It is a chance for people whose vision is not limited by what has been done, can get together to celebrate what has been accomplished, and plan what might be conquered next!
On that day I met the other members of the team with which we would open commercial space for not only myself, but any of you who might also dream of visiting, living or working in space or beyond, perhaps on the surface of another planet. Specifically, Eric Anderson, Peter Diamandis and Mike McDowell -- together we created s series of companies and organizations that slowly cracked open the door to civilian space flight.
First was Zero-G corp. ZG created a specially modified 727, which can fly aerobatically, and thus fly a special arching parabolic path giving occupants 30 second cycles of microgravity, exactly the same as experienced by astronauts. Today thousands of people experience space in this way, and NASA now exclusively uses our plane for their microgravity research.
Next we created the X-Prize. The Ansari X Prize was a $10M prize to be awarded to the first private vehicle that could fly into space twice in two weeks. The rules were set specifically such that the winner would have created a vehicle that could subsequently be used for sub orbital space tourism, and thus take ourselves and our passengers farther from the earth! The XP was won in October of 2004, and now Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is about to start flying regular service beyond the earths atmosphere!
But the big prize was always to orbit the earth, to stay in space for an extended period, and eventually go far beyond that. At the time, there were only two entities, both countries that had orbital capability ... the United States and Russia. While we made no inroads with NASA to fly civilians, after significant negotiations and large payments for research and planning, we managed to become the first non-governmental entity to secure access to orbital human space launch capabilities!
Up to this point, I had been the major backer of the steps required by Russia to open access to Space Adventures. I obviously intended to be the first customer to take that flight. However, it was the year 2000, and the stock market was crashing, and so were my personal assets largely held in that market! Thus I was not able to pay the large bill that now came with the ticket I had just secured ... Reluctantly, I had to pass on that first flight, which went instead to Denis Tito, who had also been working for years, with companies like MirCorp, to secure a similar flight! If someone had to take what I hoped would be my seat, I am glad it was Denis.
After building and selling a new company, I finally was able to pay for my seat. My first space flight was schedule for October 12, 2008. While people often try to describe what I did as "Space Tourism," I do not believe it is. We worked VERY hard to build an entire civilian space industry. Even on my flight, I did extensive commercial work to both pay for, and search for new business to build in space. We remain devoted to further opening the frontier, not just for wealthy clients but for everyone. The only way this will happen is when the cost of access to space, is reduced to below the value one can generate in space. And that day is coming fast!
In the shuttle era, sending an astronaut to space cost in excess of $300M! Aboard the Soyuz, the price today is $50M. But the new generation of rockets and capsules, such as Space X's Dragon atop a Falcon 9, Beoing's CST 100, Sierra Nevada's Dreamchaer, or Blue Origin's New Shepherd, could bring that down to $20M. But the real mark to hit single digit millions per seat into space!
Space X is developing one potential solution to this problem. Their new Grasshopper tech, may ultimately allow each stage to return to the launch site undamaged, landing under rocket power. If this succeeds, rockets may finally become fully reusable. Today rockets are largely destroyed or require extensive refurbishment with each launch. Imagine if every time you refueled your car, if you crushed it and had to buy another one for each new tank of gas ... well, not many of us would be using cars! Fully reusable rockets may be able to get the price of access to orbit down to close to $1M. While that is still far beyond pocket change, this is importantly well below what the value of work in space can return! I myself earned revenue beyond that scale with my own flight in space. This exciting reality is coming within the next decade or so.
When I can earn more with my work in space than it costs me to go to space ... I know I will be going as often as I can. Something tells me you will too!
This post was produced by The Explorers Club and The Huffington Post in conjunction with the Club's Annual Dinner on Saturday, March 15, at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, to honor pioneers in exploration and technology. The authors in this series are all members of The Explorers Club. For more information about the Club, please visit the website, which will feature a live stream of the event the evening of the Dinner. To read all posts in the series, click here.