Monday, May 08, 2006

Space Captains Of Industry: Impressions Of ISDC 2006.

Elon Musk spoke at the ISDC on Thursday. He is an historic figure and brilliant. He talked about leaving college and choosing his life path with an eye on affecting the future history of mankind. He said there were three things he was interested in that had history-changing potential: the internet, changing the energy cycle from hydrocarbons to solar-electric, and humanity becoming interplanetary.

What's interesting is that he made a fortune in the internet, and he's going to make another one in space. He's still young. Will conversion to solar-electric be far behind?

Despite his obvious grand ambitions, he comes across as a humble man interested in making a difference not in making a name for himself. That humility adds to the impression of him being the real thing.

Burt Rutan is another historic figure who made an appearance at the ISDC. He's a smart man who clearly has thought very much about the direction private human space travel is going. He is completely devoted to his work and passionate about human space travel. He also appears to be thoughtful about human character and the power of belief to drive and retard progress. His assertion that visionaries who believe what they can't prove and set out to prove it drives human progress was probably the most insightful theme of the conference.

Yet Rutan is a practical dreamer, who is putting his money, time, and energy into something he knows he can make work: suborbital human spaceflights that are affordable and safe enough to fly ordinary people repeatedly. It makes for an interesting contrast. He's also a man who is not afraid to speak his mind and perhaps a bit too quick to criticize others, for instance, the Rocket Racing League folk, his fellow former X-Prize competitors, and his former X-Prize associate, Jim Benson of SpaceDev, all of whom he criticized by suggestion in his speech.

The Virgin Galactic people were a different breed of animal. Visionary yet corporate. They were a breeze of 21st Century change blowing through the convention. They consciously try to make money in an environmentally sensitive fashion and they are sensitive to the bottom line. The Virgin Galactic President, Wil Whitehorn, spoke of something he called "Gaia Capitalism," which he described as using the power of capitalism to help solve the world's environmental problems.

They are concerned with making money in space and being successful. They want to become a commercial space line offering suborbital flights and eventually orbital flights and beyond. Apparently the name Virgin Galactic is as much descriptive as it is cool.

For them to make money in space they need to sell tickets to many paying customers. The customers may be adventurers but their idea of adventure includes coming back to share the experience not making the adventure the last experience of their lives.

There was little emphasis from the Virgin Galactic people about the danger of space travel or the need to take risks to open the space frontier. Instead, they went out of their way to emphasize safety and to state that they will only fly when it is safe to take passengers not based on a schedule dictated by the calendar.

Actually being responsible for other people's lives does a lot to focus the mind on the need to be safe.


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