Private Space: A Free-Market Approach to Space Exploration

Harvard International Review, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Private Space: A Free-Market Approach to Space Exploration

JEFF ZINSMEISTER, Global Notebook Editor, Harvard International Review

Since Sputnik was first placed into Earth orbit in 1957, space exploration has remained almost exclusively under the auspices of government. The tremendous costs and national security interests of the Cold War effectively barred private participation within the final frontier. With the exception of communication satellites, government-sponsored research, and vendor activities for government space programs, private industry has played a minor role. Even after the Cold War, governments still stand as the only route to space flight.

On a day in 2000, however, a tiny probe landing on a near-Earth asteroid may change the face of space exploration forever. There is nothing novel concerning the mission per se, which will take measurements of water and mineral composition of the rock. Still, it will mark a milestone in space flight. This 500 kilogram piece of metal will not only be the first private spacecraft to leave Earth's orbit, but also the first to rendezvous with and land on another planetary body. It will be privately funded in its entirety, and the data it collects will be offered on the market like any other commodity, available to whomever is willing to pay for it.

The project is the Near Earth Asteroid Prospector (NEAP), the brainchild of ex-software mogul Jim Benson, the CEO and founder of the Colorado-based Space Development (SpaceDev). Modeled after the 1997 Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR), a project of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA), NEAP is a private attempt to accomplish what government can do, only more cheaply and without the cumbersome bureaucracy.

SpaceDev is a unique company in the space industry; it identifies itself simply as "a private corporation engaged in the commercialization of space exploration." Its mission statement belies SpaceDev's radical ideas. Benson seeks a revolutionary departure from the glory days of government space programs--his success may mark a radical shift in how the world perceives space exploration and how governments and corporations do business together in space. SpaceDev's existence exemplifies the coming changes in space exploration. The statistics alone are notable, as NEAP comes at a time when commercial revenues exceeded government expenditures in space for the first time in history. As private industries take up a once exclusively public endeavor, NEAP is a fascinating microcosm of the evolution of space programs worldwide after the Cold War, one that is at both a reflection of past changes and a taste of things to come.

Project Structure

The anatomy of the NEAP project itself is a novel concept. Since the project is funded entirely with private money, profit and investor security is the overriding concern. Returns on investments are critical, which has been a difficult task given the high costs and risks normally involved in space exploration. Costs have been kept to a minimum, with projected expenditures pegged at around US$40 million. Innovative programs to ensure NEAP's success and control costs have been implemented to attract investors, such as SpaceDev's cooperation with the academic world. Students and professors at the University of California at San Diego, New Mexico State University, and the University of Texas at Austin have been working with SpaceDev on all aspects of spacecraft design and flight logistics. Although Benson has invested a significant amount of his own money in the expedition, more has been raised through the sale of equity in the company, via a private placement of stock in an existing trading company. However, given the difficult logistics and high risks involved, putting NEAP in space will require some creative business decisions. The academic teams are making every effort to ensure success in a mission in which countless mishaps can occur. Furthermore, Benson is insuring equipment and investments on board NEAP to assuage fears of mission failure and the loss of scientific equipment. …

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