Magazine article Insight on the News

Capitalism's Final Frontier: Scientists Must Economize and Find Ways to Turn a Profit If They Are to Continue to Probe Space

Magazine article Insight on the News

Capitalism's Final Frontier: Scientists Must Economize and Find Ways to Turn a Profit If They Are to Continue to Probe Space

Article excerpt

Scientists must economize and find ways to turn a profit if they are to continue to probe space.

Space is an extremely expensive place. Slowly but surely, however, engineers with tight budgets are finding ways to cut costs. The Clementine satellite, which has provided the most detailed maps yet of the moon's surface was manufactured with off-the-shelf hardware for a fraction of similar missions. And the next-generation space telescope -- 1,000 times more sensitive than the Hubble -- will be placed in high orbit for the cost of a space-shuttle flight.

But these successes aren't changing the basic situation, according to NASA critics. They see government as a roadblock, not a gateway, to expanded space exploration and development, and point instead to a group of pioneering entrepreneurs who are pushing, plotting and planning to open space to private ventures. And they are betting fortunes that they can crank up the pace of humanity's extraterrestrial expansion.

LunaCorp, a collective of business-people, scientists and former NASA officials headquartered in Arlington, Va., is testing a system it hopes to send to the surface of the moon by the year 2000. In conjunction with robotics specialists at Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University, the company has developed a rugged vehicle called Nomad that is designed to collect soil samples and take measurements, just as other rovers have done. But Nomad also will beam panoramic, live images back to Earth that will be projected on exhibition screens in museums and amusement parks, along with data that will allow viewers to experience the same bumps and vibrations as the rover during its trek across the moon's surface. Company officials hope millions of people will pay a few dollars each to watch these images and take a brief "ride" aboard the rover.

LunaCorp plans for the rover to begin its journey at the landing site of Apollo 11, where astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin trod the dusty soil 31 years before. But while the Apollo program represented an act of national will, Nomad will operate on a lean budget in the spirit of economic enterprise, says David Gump, president of LunaCorp.

"NASA does the first things and the big things well," Gump tells Insight. "It can do the science and the exploration. But there's more to space than that." Nomad, he boasts, is the future, leading the way for other private space missions. LunaCorp's partners believe the robot will create a demand for similar projects and, eventually, a market for commercial space tourism.

That remains an iffy proposition, however. In some ways, LunaCorp is caught in the same trap that has afflicted NASA's space missions. The company estimates the cost of placing a pair of rovers on the moon at $250 million, including $75 million in launch fees. That figure must be reduced by more than half (by some estimates) before the commercialization of space becomes profitable. And that will require the development of low-cost, dependable and frequently reusable launch vehicles.

Companies are working on several intriguing possibilities that drastically could reduce launch costs (see "Rockets, Schmockets"). But regular deployment of such vehicles won't happen until there is a demand for their use. Gump envisions a large market for space tourism by well-heeled passengers, just as the first commercial airlines catered to the wealthy 70 years ago. To date, no major corporate sponsorships have been secured, however. …

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