A number of top Silicon Valley investors have set out on a mission to make space travel more affordable.
Are US entrepreneurs set to move in on the space industry? The latest initiative by entrepreneur, venture capitalist and hedge fund manager Peter Thiel might be an indication. The co-founder of Pay Pal, who was also one of the first people to invest big in Facebook, has recently hired several space industry experts to join the investment team at his San Francisco-based venture capital firm Mithril Capital Management. And his stated aim to invest in space exploration and transportation might turn out to be a shrewd decision. Although space exploration has up to now been the prerogative of governments, the private sector made its mark in the field last year when Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX became the first private company ever to return a spacecraft safely and successfully from low-Earth orbit.
SpaceX’s basic idea is to make space more accessible by manufacturing re-useable rockets and spacecraft. The same spacecraft can now be sent into space several times as advances in technology mean that the vehicle can be returned to earth safely. Between 2012 and 2013, the company carried out three flights to the International Space Station, in partnership with the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). SpaceX is not the only company to have received NASA support; the PhoneSat programme, designed to lower the cost of satellites, and Space Tango, the first business accelerator for entrepreneurial space ventures, have also received funds. NASA has invested in space flight commercialisation, and is also a partner in several scientific programmes in the space aeronautics sector, notably with MIT, with which the agency has recently invested $200 million in the TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) project, whose goal is to identify habitable planets outside our solar system.
Space travel fires popular imagination
In parallel with these scientific and manufacturing endeavours, the whole idea of space travel and even the prospect of colonising other planets have really struck a chord with the general public. On 7 May the Mars One programme, a private spaceflight project to land four humans on Mars for permanent settlement in 2023, received over 78,000 applications from people wanting a one-way ticket to the planet. As a result, other space firms in Silicon Valley such as NanoSatisfi, Ardula, and SkyCube have also undertaken crowdsourcing initiatives. Recently DIY Rockets, a company whose stated mission is to drive down the cost of technology in the space industry, in tandem with cloud-based 3D design platform company Sunglass, announced the launch of a competition to see who can build the best open source rocket engines using 3D printing.