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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

May 16, 2006 at 12:16 PM

Rocket men

SAN DIEGO — Talk of saving energy ended abruptly when Elon Musk and Chris Faranetta came on stage at FiRe to discuss their businesses — sending people and materials into space on privately funded rocketships.

Musk, who made a fortune as a founder of PayPal, now runs a company called Space Exploration Technologies, which is competing with Boeing and Lockheed for government launch contracts. Today he showed video shot from inside his first launch in March, which ended shortly after takeoff when the motor shut off and the unmanned ship crashed into a coral reef off the remote Pacific island where it was launched.

The payload, a U.S. military satellite, survived. Musk said it shot out like a cannonball, flew 500 feet and went through the roof of a machine shop on the island. It ended up 50 feet from its shipping container “more or less intact.”

“I think it was trying to get home one way or another,” he said. “At least we can say we never lost a satellite.”

Musk is preparing to launch another satellite in September or October, and preparing a much larger rocket for launch in 2007 or 2008. He has bigger ambitions than delivering hardware.

“By 2020 I’d like to see us take somebody to another planet,” he said.

Musk is one of several tech tycoons investing in space travel. Others include Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. They’re also capitalizing on new opportunities for companies to provide space services that are getting less funding in the U.S.

“The only way we’re going to become a multiplanet species is through private enterprise,” Musk said, in complete seriousness.

Space Adventures is a travel company that’s already flying people to the International Space Station. Two customers have made the trip, and former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi is signed up for an upcoming flight.

The company is now preparing to send wealthy tourists on a lengthier trip that includes 16 days at the space station and a side trip to within 60 miles of the moon, using a spaceship developed for a Russian lunar mission. There are two seats available at $100 million apiece.

Next, the company hopes to actually land tourists on the moon.

“We believe we can go back to the moon for under $2 billion,” Faranetta said.

Faranetta said there’s a market for that sort of adventure.

“We have at least a dozen people in line for that, we get more credible inquiries every day,” he said. “We’ve identified about 1,500 people worldwide who are financially qualified to do a lunar mission. We have some solid leads there.”

Comments | More in | Topics: Entrepreneurs

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