Profits in Space?
Sunday 25th January 2004 - 9:00am - 10:15am
Profits in Space
Annual Meeting 2004
Hours after the second Martian rover Opportunity touched down on the Red Planet's cold surface, and only days after US President George W. Bush boldly proposed sending humans back to the moon and onward to Mars to "extend a human presence across our solar system", panellists disputed whether or how the private sector could ever make money on space.
"We have to separate the romantic aspects of space with the cold reality of what's involved," cautioned Marc Garneau, President, Canadian Space Agency, Canada, and a former astronaut. "I share the romance, of course. Nothing inspires young people more. But in my opinion it doesn't model out for any viable business plan." The returns on investments are too intangible, the risks appear too high, even in the science of microgravity. "Outside of philanthropists, you'd need big companies with deep pockets and a high tolerance for risk. There's not many."
Bernard Charles, President and Chief Executive Officer, Dassault Syst笥s, France, disagreed: "Everyone dreams of space," he said, "and the side effects and spin offs will make their way into the market. There is a risk, of course, and a cost issue." But he predicted both these barriers will shrink as technologies of miniaturization continue rapidly to improve and make private sector involvement more affordable and potentially more profitable.
A critical factor is whether flights are manned and expensive but spectacular or unmanned, and productive while less dramatic. Globally, private expenditure on communications satellite technology and launchers has already overtaken public spending. But what is the role of people in space at all, asked moderator Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and Master of Trinity College, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. "As a scientist, I'm against it but as a person I'm for it. Will someone now living walk on Mars because of Bush? Or will we see a race of private vehicles emblazoned with corporate slogans like a Formula One race car?"
Modelling out cost benefit analyses slightly misses the point, cautioned Richard L. Gelfond, Co Chairman and Co Chief Executive Officer, Imax Corporation, USA. "Queen Isabella of Spain didn't wait for private financing to emerge for Columbus' voyage" to discover the new world. "Companies can help as contractors or support," he said, "but fundamentally this is not a private enterprise." More importantly, man has "a genetic duty to explore space and follow this vision. The quest is the end in itself."
Gelfond was troubled by the seemingly slow pace of space exploration, at least relative to automobile, aircraft and communications technology on earth: "From Wright Brothers to the moon took 66 years; from the moon to today has taken 35, which is small progress." Some blamed the current delay on the lack of competition akin to the red hot Sputnik inspired "space race" that flared out at the end of the Cold War. "Money was no factor in the Apollo Space Project," said Garneau. "Competition was, and is, a huge factor. But I don't see a race emerging with China, as a driving factor."
President Bush's speech "cleverly" set no specific date or budget for landing people on Mars, said panellists, but several estimated the project will take several decades and hundreds of billions of dollars. In 1984 Ronald Reagan launched the Space Station project as a commercial manufacturing centre with a US$ 8 billion total budget and a decade to complete. Panellists noted it is still behind schedule, will top US$ 100 billion, no one hopes for private sector returns, and its research priorities have shifted to life sciences and physiology.
Even the emerging prospect of commerce in "space tourism" was deemed more romantic and exciting than financially viable. Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth paid MirCorp US$ 20 million each to launch with Soyuz and join the elite ranks of astronauts. Yet despite the exposure and that high price tag, noted Gelfond, when amortized, even those trips were heavily subsidized by the government. Added Garneau: "NASA was informed that they didn't work well. It seems the humans were very much in the way."
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Lord Martin Rees
Astronomer Royal and Fellow, Trinity College, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
Based at Cambridge University; national role as Astronomer Royal. Member, House of Lords. Many visit...
Richard L. Gelfond
Chief Executive Officer, IMAX Corporation, USA
Degree, State University of New York, Stony Brook; degree in Law, Northwestern University School of ...