Pioneers of the final frontier

The world was captivated by the battle between the US and Russia to put the first people into orbit and beyond, and the new space race is no less competitive, being privately funded and profit driven.

This undated handout photo provided by SpaceX shows the DragonLab in orbit.
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The world was captivated by the battle between the US and Russia to put the first people into orbit and beyond, and the new space race is no less competitive, being privately funded and profit driven. Ivan Gale looks to the stars

There is a new space race going on but this time the battle lines are drawn between some of the richest entrepreneurs on the planet rather than the world's superpowers.

While Virgin Galactic is ahead of the field with its first space tourism flights expected in late next year or early 2012, other companies are conducting their own testing with the goal of commercial, "manned missions".

XCOR Aerospace of California has designed its Lynx rocket-powered craft to reach an altitude of 110km, while Armadillo Aerospace of Texas is also working on a spacecraft to briefly escape the earth's gravitational pull and is considering the feasibility of trips to the moon.

"Virgin Galactic is probably ahead of the competition but many people are working diligently and are also very close to having solutions," said Anousheh Ansari, who became the first woman to pay her way into space in 2006 when she flew with the Russian space programme.

The first space race between the US and the USSR gripped the world between 1957 and 1975 under the backdrop of the Cold War.

This time many projects are backed by billionaires whose fortunes were amassed in the IT boom of the past two decades, including Jeff Bezos of, Elon Musk of Paypal, Sergey Brin of Google, John Carmack of id Software and Virgin's Sir Richard Branson, an entrepreneur who defies categorisation. Microsoft's Paul Allen was also involved with the development of Sir Richard's Virgin Galactic spacecraft.

"Tech entrepreneurs are very much in love with space," says Ms Ansari, a key patron of the X Prize Foundation, the not-for-profit organisation that runs public competitions to encourage technological development in the private space flight industry. Ms Ansari, an Iranian-American, in 2000 sold a telecommunications company she co-founded for US$550 million (Dh2.02 billion), paving the way for her 11 days orbiting the earth on the International Space Station, for which she paid $20m.

These companies are all vying for supremacy in a market estimated to be worth billions of dollars in areas such as space tourism, and providing government space agencies with research and cargo services.

Virgin Galactic and other commercial companies have set their sights initially on sub-orbital flights, which reach altitudes of 100km and achieve several minutes of weightlessness.

Some designs are two-stage flights, such as Virgin Galactic in which a mother ship carries the space module to heights of 15km before releasing it as a second rocket fires it into space. Other designs are one-stage, with a single spacecraft designed to carry out a vertical take-off and landing.

The second wave of flights would orbit the earth in a similar way to the decades-old US space shuttle and Russia's Soyuz programmes. This would open the way for commercial space stations. Far distant goals include holiday trips to the moon and, one day, Mars.

Pioneering new forms of space travel is costly, of course. In 2004, Mojave Aerospace Ventures won the Ansari X Prize by reaching 100km in altitude twice in a two-week period. But in winning the $10m prize it spent an estimated $25m in developing the craft.

High costs and undefined market size are, perhaps, the main reasons that today's field of competitors largely excludes the big US aerospace companies such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman.

"[Space] is not a cheap investment," says Ms Ansari. "It requires investors with a longer vision for the return." But through the X Prize Foundation, human competitive spirit is pushing the boundaries of what is possible, organisers say, in a process that will gradually lower flight costs and increase safety.

Those objectives are behind the $30m Google Lunar X PRIZE for the first team to land a privately funded robotic rover on the moon.

"We like the approach of using competition to stimulate the private sector to achieve important goals more quickly and affordably," says Sergey Brin, the Google co-founder.

An altogether different market stimulant is provided by the US government, which has decided to hire private companies to carry out much of its space-related work.

Last month, politicians gave the green light for the NASA space agency to authorise $1.3bn for the commercial transport of astronauts to the international space station, starting as early as 2015.

Yet other enticements include the possibility of "growing" materials in orbit more efficiently and quickly than on Earth, due to the lack of gravity.

Research has already begun on growing crystals such as diamonds in orbit, and even the cultivation of human tissue has been mooted.

In addition, orbiting space capsules may one day be able to harness the sun's energy through solar receptors and turn it into electricity to be beamed to Earth for distribution, without any constraining factors such as cloud cover or night darkness.

"Because you don't have the force of gravity, there are lots of possibilities," says Ms Ansari. "It's endless."