THE BLOG
04/17/2013 02:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2013

Barnstorming Space

Alamy

Who wants to fly their own shoebox-sized experiment into space for a few thousand dollars? Or experience weightlessness in Earth orbit, or a trip around the moon? How about remotely visiting an asteroid that contains more fresh water than exists in all of Earth's lakes and streams? Welcome to Space Access 2013, a meeting of space mavericks, held last week in Phoenix, Arizona.

The three-day summit, which has convened annually for over 20 years, brings together some of the most seasoned and visionary folks in what is now called the NewSpace movement. But when they started out, there was no such thing as NewSpace, or private spaceflight for that matter. There was no Elon Musk and SpaceX flying to the space station, nor was there a Richard Branson promising rides into space. There were just a few individuals, often considered a bit "out there" by friends and family alike, pushing to allow common folk to travel to the stars.

Take Tom Taylor, now in his 70s. After a hitch in the U.S. Army building roads across Thailand to the assailed Vietnam of 1965, he attended grad school at Stanford University and worked in a variety of fields before becoming an early space entrepreneur. By his own count, he has started or participated in founding 22 space companies, of which as least four were successful. These included the first attempt to convert the space shuttle's external tank into an orbiting space station, one of the first efforts at building a private spaceplane to compete with the shuttle, and a successful company, Spacehab, that built and flew experimental modules in the shuttle's payload bay. At a time in life when most are settling into an E-Z Boy, remote in hand, Taylor is building four new companies including one that will mine helium-3, a highly valuable potential fuel for nuclear fusion, from the moon.

Or how about Jeff Feige, a young man on the opposite end of the spectrum, who graduated college in 2002 and now heads Orbital Outfitters, the only private maker of space suits to win consideration by the soon-to-fly private spaceship crowd. Youthful, confident and even dashing, he has pioneered new suit designs using the best of old and new technology. With his small team he has learned from the past (both U.S. and Soviet-era suits have been carefully dissected by his shop in North Hollywood, California) and pioneered new and unique designs. Spacesuits have been one of the toughest challenges of the space age, with older, bulky suits severely restricting an astronaut's mobility when inflated to survivable pressure. Feige has worked since 2007 to change that, and has met with enough success to win the attention of both customers and competitors alike.

Perhaps the most unique of the entrepreneurs at the conference was Misuzu Onuki, a woman who left JAXA (the Japanese equivalent of NASA) to become a private consultant in space technology, spaceflight and... space fashion? Yes, though Japan has yet to fly men or women into space on their own (though they have flown many astronauts on the U.S. shuttle and Russia's Soyuz), they are acutely aware that it's not just about surviving in space, but looking good while doing it. All kidding aside, Onuki has designed and showcased many variations on space-garb, pointing out that there is more to flying and living in space than technology and science. There are also human factors, specifically the psychological well-being of those who go there, and they are affected by clothing and interior design more than you might think. She has been a pioneer in both areas and continues to surprise the NewSpace sector with innovative, and often somewhat whimsical, designs. Onuki has also consulted on more traditional ventures both in space tech and entertainment, but her heart seems to beat faster when thinking about living in space than getting there.

And no 21st Century space conference would be complete without a representative from an asteroid mining company, in this case Rick Tumlinson, a founder of the newly-christened Deep Space Industries. Brimming with energy derived from nearly three decades in the private space trenches, he identifies himself as a devotee of Gerard K. O'Neil, a space visionary of the 1980's. Since then Tumlinson has had a few major successes in the space entrepreneuring area, and DSI appears to be on its way to a similar result. With plans to robotically reconnoiter asteroids for valuable materials ranging from water to precious metals within a few years, DSI will probably split its efforts between asteroid exploration, mining and planetary defense. The latter would require a deep-pocket interest from NASA (and possibly others) to accomplish, but given recent events in the skies over Russia and the resultant damage, it just may come to pass. Along with James Cameron's Planetary Resources, DSI stands to benefit from this newfound awareness of the dangers of rogue asteroids and other space debris.

There were dozens of other presenters at the gathering, discussing everything from small suborbital rockets that they build and launch themselves -- sometimes for customers -- to crowdfunding spaceflight ventures, to US space policy. It was an eclectic presentation for an eclectic crowd. Perhaps the highlight presentation was by Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR Aerospace, builder of the Lynx spaceplane. In an area where many have tried- and failed- to build a resusable space glider, Greason is one of the few (along with Branson's Virgin Galactic and a small handful of others) to be actively testing airframes, engines and cockpits, and should be flying within a couple of years.

Henry Vanderbilt, the presenter of the Space Access Conference, is somewhat of a one-man band. A bit like a certain wizard over the rainbow, he buzzes with energy as he opens the conference hall, introduces speakers and then dashes to the back of the room to mix audio levels and make sure that the video recorder is working. He seems to never stand still, and one suspects that he is that way in day-to-day life as well. After a career that has ranged from industrial electronics to space politics, he founded the Space Access Society in 1992 and has never looked back.

The scope of the event was vast, the presentations compelling and the ideas soaring. These are the mavericks among mavericks and, despite the fact than many will fail to accomplish their current goals, some will lead us to a better -- and private -- future in space.

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