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Silicon Valley entrepreneurs set their sights on space travel, moon mining

November 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Move over NASA, Silicon Valley is joining the space race. Entrepreneurs from the nation's high-tech hub are designing lunar landers, making plans to mine the moon and gearing up to blast off into commercial space flight. Thuy Vu of KQED reports on how private ventures and investors are investing in space exploration.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: For decades, when Americans have talked about exploring space, the government agency NASA has been front and center in every conversation.

NASA, in fact, launched its latest mission to Mars just today. But the private sector is stepping up to the plate,too, increasingly in California’s prosperous Silicon Valley.

Thuy Vu of KQED Public Television in San Francisco narrates our report.

THUY VU, KQED: One hundred miles north of Los Angeles, in the dusty desert town of Mojave, the world’s first commercial rocketship is gearing up to launch citizen astronauts to the edge of space. No, this isn’t a movie. It’s real.

GEORGE WHITESIDES, Virgin Galactic: For 50 years, space has been the domain of professionals, right, NASA astronauts, Russian astronauts, Chinese astronauts. And so what we want to do is to make space available and open to other people.

THUY VU: But to experience the thrill of a few minutes of weightlessness, you will have to pay Virgin Galactic $250,000 for a two-and-a-half-hour ride 60 or so miles above Earth. Sure, it’s a luxury, but Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides thinks that price will fall eventually.

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GEORGE WHITESIDES: But, long-term, you know, I think the price can come down, around the SUV price point, you know, where then you get down to that level. It’s still expensive, but I think a lot of people would be willing to do this sort of once in their lives.

THUY VU: Since billionaire tycoon Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2005, more than 600 people have placed deposits for the first commercial supersonic flights. They’re scheduled to lift off in 2014.

Today, dozens of companies are launching new commercial space ventures, ranging from space tourism to mining the moon, fueled by the risk-taking startup culture of Silicon Valley.

Bob Richards is the CEO of Moon Express, a startup in Mountain View. He and his team of young engineers are planning an unmanned mission to the moon at a cost of $50 million to $100 million.

BOB RICHARDS, Moon Express: So, and getting to the moon, like any business, it’s really about balancing risk and cost. This is a supercomputer in my pocket, a billion times more powerful than what NASA designed to land the first landers on the moon. We can use that technology today. And we can use technology largely from the commercial sector.

THUY VU: Sure, a privately funded mission to the moon sounds risky, but Richard thinks it’s a gold mine of a business opportunity.

BOB RICHARDS: Moon Express is a lunar resources company. That means we will eventually be mining the moon. Asteroids have been bombarding both the Earth and the moon for billions of years, and every asteroid contains billions or maybe even trillions of dollars worth of valuable resources, platinum group metals, or gold, OR silver.

THUY VU: But before Moon Express can mine the moon, it has to get there, which it’s trying to do with a lunar landing being tested and developed inside a hangar at NASA Ames Research Center.

MAN: Let me show you the test from this morning. This is kind of like driver’s ed for the spacecraft. We’re teaching it over and over how to land safely.

THUY VU: The lander is scheduled to launch in 2015, with later commissions to prospect and eventually mine the moon. But can a company even legally do that? The law isn’t entirely clear, according to aviation and spaceflight attorney Douglas Griffith.

DOUGLAS GRIFFITH, aviation and spaceflight attorney: The Outer Space Training of 1967 is addressed to nations. It says that nations cannot own the moon. It doesn’t say anything about whether private companies can settle on the moon or extract the moon’s resources, because people just weren’t thinking about that back then.

MAN: One minute, 35 seconds.

THUY VU: The for-profit space ventures of today are a far cry from the big government-led efforts that thrust a nation to exceptional new heights.

MAN: Tranquility Base here. The eagle has landed.

STEVE JURVETSON, Draper Fisher Jurvetson: During the space race, NASA as a government entity would farm out projects to many companies. It may be a single-use mission to the moon. And they would fund it. In the new model, companies look for business opportunities.

THUY VU: Steve Jurvetson is a venture capitalist whose firm has invested tens of millions of dollars in SpaceX, a California rocket maker and provider of launch services founded by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk. NASA is paying SpaceX more than a billion dollars for resupply missions to the International Space Station.

In May 2012, SpaceX became the world’s first private company to launch a mission to the space station. The milestone proved the company could build and launch rockets reliably and cheaply.

MAN: And capture is confirmed of this Dragon spacecraft.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

STEVE JURVETSON: Many of these new space companies are being built by software engineers. And folks like Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, didn’t come from an aerospace background. He was a computer scientist by training.

Time and time again, Silicon Valley has proven that is the hotbed of entrepreneurship. It invents new industries, and part of it is the culture, the willingness to take risk.

THUY VU: Part of it may also be a high-tech approach to innovate industries, as Dan Berkenstock and his team at Skybox Imaging are trying to do with satellites.

DAN BERKENSTOCK, Skybox Imaging: A typical imaging satellite today costs between half-a-billion and $1 billion, with a B. They’re about the size of a suburban and they take five to eight years, roughly, to build.

We’re trying to build the iPhone of satellites. We take processors off the shelf so that we can fly the latest and greatest components in space that are available in the commercial marketplace. The beauty of this approach is that for less than the cost of a single imaging satellite in today’s world, we can launch an entire constellation of satellites.

What excites us is really taking that very good foundation of the mapping industry of today and helping to turn that into the monitoring industry of tomorrow, where we’re not just getting that picture once a year, once every couple of years. We’re getting that picture every day, and multiple times per day.

The satellites we build at Skybox are about the size of a dorm room refrigerator. They weigh about a hundred kilograms. And we have tried to pack as much high performance into the smallest box possible.

THUY VU: With the first Skybox satellite scheduled to launch in late 2013, the startup founders think there’s a big market for rapid on-demand Earth monitoring.

MAN: I think, over San Francisco, this would be awesome.

MAN: You will be able to see the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, you know, how is your commute to work, all the shipping traffic throughout the channel.

MAN: Sure.

MAN: And all the various ports throughout the bay.

THUY VU: But big, bold ideas carry risk, especially in the high-stakes, unforgiving frontier of space.

STEVE JURVETSON: And there were times when this nation took some risks and lives were at stake, flying humans in orbit, that would lead to phrases like failure is not an option. But we all know in our heart failure has to be an option. You can’t innovate if failure is not an option. How much risk do you want to take to push the ball forward?

THUY VU: In the digital age, that push may be a leap that radically expands our presence in space.

GWEN IFILL: To hear more from these new space entrepreneurs, you can watch KQED’s entire documentary, “Silicon Valley Goes to Space,” at KQED.org/science.