Feature
Above and Beyond
Space companies with Texas ties are charting a trajectory to transport civilians on the ride of their lives

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    SpaceX, whose Dragon capsule is grappled by a robotic arm of the International Space Station in 2012, has a rocket test facility near McGregor.
    IMAGE: NASA Archive | Alamy
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    SpaceX, whose Dragon capsule is grappled by a robotic arm of the International Space Station in 2012, has a rocket test facility near McGregor.
    IMAGE: NASA Archive | Alamy
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    Space travel might be a foreign concept for some people, but not Richard Garriott de Cayeux. As the son of an astronaut growing up in Nassau Bay, he figured it was his destiny. Sure enough, in 2008 he joined a Russian crew and spent 10 days on the International Space Station.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Richard Garriott de Cayeux
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    Richard Branson partnered his company, Virgin Galactic, with a California firm and hopes to send a six-passenger craft into space by the end of the year. He’s holding a model of the carrier plane that would take SpaceShipTwo to an altitude of 50,000 feet, where it would then be released to fly into space.
    IMAGE: ZUMA Wire Service | Alamy
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    Another firm, Blue Origin, launches rockets in Culberson County in West Texas. Its goal is to send a biconic space vehicle, in rendering above, into orbit carrying astronauts and supplies.
    IMAGE: Blue Origin

Imagine rocketing into space and living on the International Space Station for 10 days. You have a window seat and the best view of your life.

Flying at 17,000 miles an hour, you complete an orbit of the Earth every 90 minutes and see a sunrise or sunset every 45 minutes. Even from 250 miles up, you can clearly see places you know: North America, the United States, the Gulf Coast, Texas.

Richard Garriott de Cayeux (in recent years he added his wife’s surname to his own), a wildly successful developer of computer games and the world’s sixth civilian astronaut to fly into orbit, said his experience in 2008 was life changing—but not for reasons he would have predicted, such as seeing the beauty of Earth and experiencing the thrill of weightlessness.

“As you go around the Earth, you begin to see how weather systems work, how tectonic plate movements have changed the surface because you can see the fault lines; you can see how erosion by water has washed so much mass out into the oceans,” Garriott de Cayeux said during an interview in his West Austin home. “The biggest and most impactful part is how clearly fully occupied the Earth is by people. Even in the Amazon, there are roads crisscrossing it all over the place. You can see the fires with people clear-cutting.”

Garriott de Cayeux is the first of a new breed of civilian astronauts. Eager to follow is the next wave of well-heeled people who are lining up to fly in spacecraft being launched starting as early as this year by about a half-dozen companies.

For Garriott de Cayeux, becoming an astronaut was the experience he seemed destined for. The son of NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, Garriott de Cayeux grew up during the 1960s and ’70s, the heyday of U.S. space exploration. NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston was the center of manned spaceflight. Apollo missions culminated in men walking on the moon, and “Houston” was the first word spoken from the lunar surface with the landing of the Eagle module. Garriott de Cayeux’s next-door neighbors in Nassau Bay, which is right across the street from the Johnson Space Center, were astronauts. His friends were other astronauts’ kids, so he took it for granted that he would one day become an astronaut.

Garriott de Cayeux fulfilled his dream when he flew aboard a Russian rocket with a Soyuz crew that spent 10 days on the International Space Station. Garriott de Cayeux, 51, paid dearly for the ride of his life, plunking down $30 million.

Now, a handful of companies, many with Texas ties, promise to fly travelers roughly 60 miles above the Earth into what is known as suborbital space. These flights would last little more than a couple hours but give travelers the high of experiencing weightlessness and heavenly views at a cost of about $95,000 to $200,000, depending on the operator and spacecraft.

That’s certainly not chump change. But Tara Hyland, director of marketing at Universal Travel, a Houston travel agency, sold a $200,000 flight on Virgin Galactic, an outfit founded by British entrepreneur Richard Branson. The company plans to begin flying people on a six-passenger craft known as SpaceShipTwo from a spaceport in New Mexico by the end of 2013.

The ticket holder? A 56-year-old retired Houston businesswoman. She asked us not to use her name because she hasn’t told her nearly 80-year-old mother about the trip and doesn’t want to scare her to death. (“She calls us every time there is a thunderstorm; I’m trying to keep her anxiety to a minimum amount.”)

The would-be space traveler is one of more than 500 who have placed down payments of at least $20,000 on a future flight, according to Virgin Galactic.

“I was one of those kids who always wanted to be an astronaut,” she said. “I grew up during the early space program. There are a lot of baby boomers doing this. Our parents would park us in front of the TV to watch the space missions.” She is not independently wealthy, having never earned more than $80,000 a year, but has been an aggressive saver and followed her petroleum geologist father’s sage investing advice. “I’m well off, but this is not a tiny drop in the bucket for me,” she said. “It’s a portion of my savings.”

The Sky’s No Limit

As an investor, partner and board member of a number of space businesses and organizations, you might call Garriott de Cayeux an unofficial Texas ambassador of the civilian spaceflight business.

In addition to serving on NASA’s Advisory Council, he is co-vice chairman of Space Adventures, the company that hammered out the deals for civilians to train as cosmonauts and fly aboard Russian spaceships. Space Adventures now has an agreement with Armadillo Aerospace, a Caddo Mills-based company that is developing a two-passenger spacecraft to fly people into suborbital space for roughly $100,000 each.

Garriott de Cayeux and Branson fit the breed of dreamers who are opening this new frontier at a time when NASA has shed jobs with the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011. The short list includes: John Carmack, another highly successful computer game creator and founder of Armadillo; Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (or SpaceX); and Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, whose closely guarded Blue Origin spaceflight business launches rockets from a pad in Culberson County in far West Texas.

Another fast-growing company is XCOR Aerospace, which announced last year it will build a research and development facility at Midland International Airport, where officials have applied with the Federal Aviation Administration for approval to create what would be the state’s first private spaceport.

SpaceX has a rocket and equipment test facility outside McGregor that employs about 200 and is considering locating a rocket launch facility near Brownsville.

Company CEO Musk has collected enough awards for his innovations and designs—including the Falcon, the first privately developed liquid-fuel rocket to reach Earth’s orbit—to fill a space capsule. He makes no bones about SpaceX’s long-term goal: traveling to Mars. SpaceX plans its first manned orbital flights in 2015.

NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries noted that private contractors have always worked closely with the agency. He said what’s different now is best explained by an analogy. In the past, NASA hired companies to build a truck and then accepted all the responsibility to operate and maintain it. For now, NASA is content to hitch a ride and load all its cargo in someone else’s truck. That explains why NASA awarded a $1.6 billion contract to SpaceX for 12 flights to ferry tons of cargo back and forth from the International Space Station, giving the U.S. its first capability to return to the station since the grounding of the space shuttle. NASA retired the shuttle to focus on deep-space exploration to destinations such as an asteroid or Mars. Among other things, the agency and its partners are developing a capsule, called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which will be used for future exploration missions.

Of course, everyone in the business realizes there are payloads of risks in the daunting effort of launching rockets into space, said Neil Milburn, vice president of program management for Armadillo Aerospace, which hopes to make its first manned commercial flights as soon as next year. “The vehicles keep getting bigger and bigger and the risks get larger and larger,” Milburn, an engineer, said.

‘Launching a vehicle into space is monumentally difficult,’ Milburn said. ‘After all, it is rocket

science. NASA has been at it for half a century, and they sometimes get it wrong.’

Armadillo participated in and won a secondary award in the inaugural X Prize, the foundation-run contest that in 2004 provided an enticing $10 million first-place prize to the first company to demonstrate two successful takeoffs and landings of a reusable spacecraft within two weeks. The winner was SpaceShipOne made by Scaled Composites, a company based in Mohave, California, that is partnering with Virgin Galactic on its upcoming flights.

The prize, now called the Ansari X Prize, was funded with money provided by the family of Anousha Ansari, a native of Iran who immigrated to the United States as a teenager and leads Prodea Systems, a Plano-based consumer technology company. Ansari became the first woman civilian astronaut in 2006 when she flew to the International Space Station as part of another Space Adventures-Russian space agency trip.

There are many other entrepreneurial outfits carving off pieces of the market. These include companies that specialize in preparing and arranging the launching of satellites into orbit, such as Austin-based Astrotech, which is run by Tom Pickens, the youngest son of oil and gas tycoon T. Boone Pickens. A Clear Lake company called NanoRacks has created specially designed tanks that easily plug into the space station to allow for experiments that can be monitored from Earth, even by high school science students.

One of the most far-out businesses is Houston-based Celestis, which specializes in sending the ashes of the deceased into space. The company flies a “symbolic portion of cremated remains,” up to 7 grams, or about as much as would fit into a lipstick container, said Charlie Chafer, chief executive of Celestis.

Chafer said the company has flown the ashes of the deceased on a variety of rockets operated by NASA and private firms, and the company’s website includes dozens of biographies of customers, many with notes from their surviving family members. In most cases, the ashes disappear upon re-entry or otherwise return to Earth unrecovered.

Prices range from about $1,000 for a suborbital flight to $5,000 for orbital. And Celestis also is beginning to market a lunar burial for $10,000 as a payload on a spacecraft that wins the Google Lunar X Prize, a $30 million award that would go to the first company that can fly to the moon and release a robotic rover by the end of 2015.

“We’ve put more than 1,000 people into space—more than any other company,” Chafer boasted.

Wonderment about the moon and stars and all that’s out there is as old as humanity itself. As civilians continue pursuing space travel, would-be adventurers—living and deceased—will benefit from advances being gained around Texas today.

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Charles Boisseau is an Austin writer.

Students Aiming High in Fredericksburg

Junior and senior high school students in Fredericksburg may become the country’s next-generation space engineers and spacecraft designers.

 

They are participating in the SystemsGo program developed in 1996 by Brett Williams, a science teacher at the Fredericksburg High School.

 

By the time they graduate, students in the SystemsGo program launch a rocket, a learning experience designed to promote engineering and research studies and develop workforce skills that encourage career paths in engineering, science and technology. Endorsed by NASA, the nationally recognized curriculum is taught at about 50 high schools nationwide.

 

The students collaborate to design, purchase parts and build a rocket that is capable of carrying a 1-pound payload 1 mile up.

 

“It’s been proven that people who do things learn a great deal more than just hearing or seeing things,” said Williams, who proudly notes that 80 percent of the program’s graduates at Fredericksburg High go on to graduate from college, and most earn engineering degrees. “Really, this is about skill building.

 

“They are learning cognitive reasoning, critical thinking, problem solving. That’s what all this is wrapped around.”

 

Last summer, five Fredericksburg students interned at SpaceX, a supporter of the largely grant-funded SystemsGo program. SpaceX is a private space company that has a major engine and rocket-testing facility near McGregor. One of the SystemsGo graduates is now the director of SpaceX’s propulsion facility.

 

Charles Boisseau

TAGS: Business, Technology


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