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November 1st: Torsten Jacobi, CEO of Creative Weblogging, joins host Anita Campbell. Sponsored by Six Disciplines. Show details.
Monday, June 21, 2004
The Entrepreneurization of Space
Today marked history for space travel. Planet Earth saw its very first commercial, non-governmental manned flight into space, by a craft aptly named SpaceShipOne.

OK, so it did not go very far nor last very long. But that doesn't make the flight any less momentous.

What's so special is how entrepreneurial it all was. This is not the kind of government-dominated space flight we've all been conditioned to expect for the past 40 years. This flight had all the earmarks of a startup venture.

The space craft was designed by someone other than a government employee (Burt Rutan, who built it for a reported US$20 Million, a lot of money to be sure, but a teeny-weeny fraction of what it would have cost NASA). And it was financed by private investment money (billionaire Paul Allen's). And piloted by a civilian (Michael Melvill, at 63 years old not exactly your 30-something, 1-in-10,000 superman astronaut, but someone that the average person can more easily identify with).

Oh, and it managed to leave Earth's atmosphere and gravitational field just long enough for some M&M chocolates to float (exactly the kind of do-it-yourself test you would expect pioneering entrepreneurs to use).

What's even more interesting is that the U.S. government seemed to wholeheartedly embrace the flight. A recent White House commission report recommended that NASA should limit its role in future space missions to areas where it is uniquely positioned to add value, and let private industry take on a greater role -- and shoulder more of the financial burden of the space program. NASA issued this statement lauding the flight:
"Not unlike the first U.S. and Soviet space travelers in 1961, and China's first successful spaceflight last October, these private citizens are pioneers in their own right. They are doing much to open the door to a new marketplace offering the experience of weightlessness and suborbital space flight to the public.

We congratulate the SpaceShipOne team and wish all those who may follow safe flights."
And NASA may even offer prize money for future successful space flights. And the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration even jumped into the act, granting Melvill, the pilot, the very first civilian astronaut pin.

You are seeing the first inklings of a trend -- commercial space travel and tourism. Only, don't mortgage your home just yet to open that resort on Mars or buy the first McDonald's franchise on the Moon. Today's steps were important. But it is going to be a long time before civilians routinely travel into space.

In the interim, the real small business opportunity will be to join in or start one of the ventures to build and launch a commercial spacecraft to vy for the Ansari X Prize or a NASA prize, or to provide products or support services in connection with those ventures.

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