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Private space missions weighed

Published by Robin on Sun Jul 17, 2005 1:34 pm
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Whittier Daily News Saturday, July 16, 2005 – 9:35:02 PM PST
By Kimm Groshong, Staff Writer

PASADENA — With the Ansari X Prize claimed, ever better and cheaper technologies available and anxious scientists hungry for enhanced space exploration, some local space enthusiasts are convinced the time has come for commercial space missions to take off.
It’s been more than a year since Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne became the first commercial rocket to carry a man into space above the Mojave Desert. Last month, The Planetary Society attempted to launch an entirely privately funded solar sail mission to prove that a spacecraft could be propelled by the momentum of the sun’s rays.
Over the course of five decades of space exploration, about 200 missions have launched beyond Earth’s orbit into deep space. But so far not one has been commercially funded.
“A lot of us are just saying ‘enough!’ It’s time to start trying some commercial things,” said Rex Ridenoure, CEO of Pasadena-based Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation.
The 49-year-old engineer recalls his college years when space scientists tossed around innovative ideas about what could be done at the moon and Mars. They discussed utilizing materials from the moon and asteroids to reduce the overall cost of space activities. Some suggested redirecting solar power from the moon to augment Earth’s power supply and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
“None of them have happened,” Ridenoure lamented. “None of them have even started.”
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On a quest to change that, Ridenoure left the position he had held for 11 years as a spacecraft system engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1997 to try to make commercial deep space missions happen.
In 1999, Ridenoure became the second employee of an Idealab company called BlastOff! Corporation, which eventually hired about 50 engineers and scientists from JPL and Lockheed Martin following the two failed Mars missions of 1999 and 2000. BlastOff! was designed to build and launch the first commercial lunar lander mission.
“We had one of the best teams, I think, ever assembled to do that kind of mission,’ Ridenoure said. Filmmaker James Cameron had even come onboard, excited about sharing space exploration with an onlooking world for a cost similar to that required to make a typical Hollywood movie.
But following the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the collapse of Idealab’s eToys, BlastOff! was abruptly shut down in January 2001. “We were probably about a year and a half from launching the thing,’ Ridenoure said.
Today, the remnants of that company survive in a restructured form in Ridenoure’s six-man Ecliptic business. This time around, it’s striving to operate as a traditional business and then bootstrap up to grander schemes.
Formed in March 2001, Ecliptic now projects that it will post a profit for the first time this year. The company sells small live-feeding video cameras called RocketCams that help monitor and share rocket launches, including the upcoming Return to Flight shuttle launch.
Ecliptic’s next product line will be its RocketPods devices designed to be bolted onto the outside of rockets to carry and release 4-cubic-inch-sized craft into space without the enormous cost of a separate launch.
But the ultimate goal for Ecliptic, and the idea that’s been on the strategic plan since day one, is to get into the space-faring game. “I’m totally convinced before the end of this decade that the first commercial mission to the moon will happen,’ Ridenoure said. “We’d like to be the team behind it, but there’s no guarantee.’
The driving idea behind that goal for Ridenoure is that government-dominated arenas blossom when commercial influences enter the picture. He speaks of the government’s “flags and footprints’ style of exploration where space projects are completed for political purposes. For example, he said, the Apollo program was not sustainable. “And the same thing goes for Mars. If we send humans to Mars under strictly government sponsorship, it’s not going to be a sustainable program.’
The answer, he says, as it was for the Internet and the postal service, is to introduce commercial influences. The motto for space enthusiasts who hold Ridenoure’s point of view is “if you’re going to space to stay, then space has to pay.’
While The Planetary Society’s executive director, Louis Friedman, certainly believes privately funded missions have a role to play in space exploration, he said they should not serve as anything more than “a stimulus in public-private partnerships.’
Friedman offered the balance struck between government research and development of communication satellites and their operation by commercial companies as an example of an ideal partnership. The government is necessary, he said, to take the risks and costs necessary to continue to develop and test new technologies. Otherwise, the technology begins to go downhill.
“Setting up private initiatives as competitors to the government is self-defeating,’ he said.
He said in the 1980s, a group convinced the Reagan administration to allow private groups rather than NASA to put together the mission that would fly past Halley’s Comet.
As a result, he said, “the U.S. became the only space-faring nation not to go to Halley’s comet.’
The role for the private sector in space, Friedman said, must be as the government space agencies’ partner, spurring them on to try new and exciting missions.

Whittier Daily News Saturday, July 16, 2005 – 9:35:02 PM PST
By Kimm Groshong

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