The Science of Sustainability

Silicon Valley Goes to Space

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A new generation of entrepreneurs – sprung from the high-risk, high-tech culture of Silicon Valley – is launching private, for-profit ventures to open up space for tourism, transportation, rapid earth imaging and even mining the moon. It's a far cry from the early days of space exploration, where NASA led the way, culminating in Neil Armstrong's first bold steps on the moon in July 1969.

Companies such as Virgin Galactic, which bills itself  as the world's first commercial spaceliner, and rocket maker SpaceX, which in 2012 became the first private company to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, are rapidly creating new commercial opportunities in an arena long believed to be out of reach to private companies.

But opening up space to lucrative, ambitious commercial ventures carries not only rewards, but also risks.

On October 31, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight 25 miles north of the Mojave Air and Space Port, killing one of the two pilots.

“Space is hard and today was a tough day,” said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides at a press conference held a few hours later. "Our future rests in many ways on hard days like this, but we believe we owe it to the folks who were flying these vehicles as well as the folks who have been working so hard on them to understand this and move forward," he said.

Just days earlier, an unmanned rocket owned by another company, Orbital Sciences, and re-supplying the International Space Station, exploded in Virginia shortly after takeoff.

Space industry leaders say the industry will rebound, and already has significant accomplishments in recent years.

More than 700 people have put down deposits for a $250,000 rocketship ride into the edge of space with Virgin Galactic that had been expected as soon as 2015, for example. In September, SpaceX completed its fourth successful resupply mission to the space station, returning with nearly 4,000 pounds of science experiments and cargo. The company hopes to eventually transport astronauts to the space station, for considerably cheaper than the $70 million NASA has had to pay the Russians for astronaut transport since the retirement of the Space Shuttle. Other entrepreneurs have announced plans to land on the moon or even Mars in the coming decades.

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Category: Astronomy, Engineering, Television, Video

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Sheraz Sadiq

About the Author ()

Sheraz Sadiq is an Emmy Award-winning producer at San Francisco PBS affiliate KQED. In 2012, he received the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism award for a story he produced about the seismic retrofit of the Hetch Hetchy water delivery system which serves the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to producing television content for KQED Science, he has also created online features and written news articles on scientific subjects ranging from astronomy to synthetic biology.