Space. The final frontier for . . . entrepreneurs? As the millennium approaches, it seems fitting that space travel is expected to be touted as one of the biggest entrepreneurial opportunities to hit planet Earth in the coming century.
Historically, the business of space travel has been limited to academic and government organizations, with NASA flights costing roughly $500 million and only a handful of astronauts making the trips. Now, nearly 30 years after man first landed on the moon, a move to privatize the industry is underway in hopes of spurring competition, driving down costs, and making space travel a reality for average--but wealthy--consumers.
Driving this change is the X PRIZE Foundation, a nonprofit organization that's sponsoring a contest that will award $10 million to the first privately financed team to successfully send passengers into space. The winner must build a vehicle to transport three civilians into space (62 miles into suborbit, to be exact), return them to earth, and complete a second trip within a two-week period.
The contest is counting on the ingenuity and spirit of small companies to make space travel a reality. "We're using the competition to spark entrepreneurs to look at different ways of creating vehicles [for cost-effective space travel]," says X PRIZE's Steven Werner.
This kind of contest has a precedent: It was a contest with a $25,000 prize that spurred Charles Lindbergh to make his historic flight.
So far, 15 teams, comprised of aerospace engineers, adventure travel companies and, yes, rocket scientists, are rising to the challenge. Some companies are already selling tickets, starting at around $98,000, for the ride of a lifetime. The X PRIZE Foundation expects a winner in 2000.
"I've always felt it's only a matter of time until regular people can go into space," says Werner Zehnder, president and co-founder of Zegrahm Space Voyages, a Seattle-based adventure travel company that's entered the race to space. "The technology is already there, and by getting the private sector involved, I think we'll finally see it happen."
To those seeking to build the space travel companies of the future, this is no ordinary entrepreneurial opportunity. "I'm aware that what we're doing is groundbreaking," says contestant Michael Kelly, chairman of the board and chief technology officer of Kelly Space & Technology Inc. in San Bernardino, California. "It's a thrill."