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Private Companies Look To Cash In On Space Travel

Evening Edition

Above: Space may be the final frontier, but who's in charge of it? Should exploration and colonization be a matter for governments, or for private industry? It was a major topic of discussion and sometimes heated disagreement at a pair of conferences here in San Diego. KPBS Science and Technology reporter David Wagner has the story.

Aired 5/28/13 on KPBS News.

Last week, NASA researchers, interplanetary entrepreneurs and award-winning science fiction writers gathered at UC San Diego's new Center for Human Imagination.

Everyone agreed: Humans are about to venture farther into space that we've ever gone before.

Last week, NASA researchers, interplanetary entrepreneurs and award-winning science fiction writers gathered at UC San Diego's new Center for Human Imagination.

Everyone agreed: Humans are about to venture farther into space that we've ever gone before.

But that optimism clouded over when panel moderator Peter Schwartz posed this controversial question to the audience: "How many of you think that if we really do make deep-space voyages, that they're going to be driven by non-governmental entities?"

Reluctantly or not, nearly everyone raised a hand.

"Who thinks it's going to be the governments of the planet, one way or another?"

This time, maybe half a dozen stray hands went up, showing tentative faith in government-run space programs. To author and space advocate Allen Steele, the message is clear.

"I think we're going to Mars. I think we're going back to the mood. I think we're going to the asteroids," he said. "We may indeed actually go to the stars. I don't think NASA is going to take us there."

Half a century after President John F. Kennedy pledged to put a man on the moon, space is once again having a moment.

In the past year, millions of people have watched a NASA rover landing on Mars, a daredevil jumping out of a balloon at the edge of space and a Canadian astronaut covering David Bowie in zero gravity.

But the U.S. space program isn't swelling along with all this space hype.

In fact, with its paltry budget and limited resources, NASA can't put people into space even if it wanted to. These days, when the United States sends an astronaut to the International Space Station, it pays Russia $70 million for a seat on one of their Soyuz rockets.

That's why so many people at this symposium think private companies, not government, will take the next giant leaps in space. And that doesn't sit well with Sheldon Brown, director of the Center for Human Imagination.

"I would be a little more reluctant to commercialize the future of the human species," he said.

Dutch businessman Bas Lansdorp isn't reluctant at all. He heads up one of the most ambitious — and some might say impossible — private missions to space. Lansdorp was in town last week to deliver his company's pitch.

"Mars One is organizing a manned mission to Mars in the year 2023, sending four more people every two years after that to establish the next permanent human settlement on the next planet."

It's not just a huge scientific challenge for Lansdorp. It's also an opportunity to stage the biggest media spectacle the world has ever seen. He plans to fund Mars One by televising these one-way trips to the red planet.

"What we want to do is involve the whole world in this mission to Mars by sharing these stories with a large audience," he said. "So, involving them in astronaut selection, in how are the astronauts training. And, of course, in humans actually leaving the Earth forever to go to Mars, landing there, showing what their life will be like. This will be the biggest and most exciting story that has every been told."

One person who isn't buying that story is famed Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to ever walk on the moon. At a San Diego book signing, he balked at the business model behind Mars One.

"Doing something flimsy, just for a reality show? I think there are many aspects of that that are irresponsible."

In his retirement, Adrian has often criticized decisions made at NASA. But, he still believes governments should play a dominant role in setting up colonies on Mars.

"The effort that it takes to go to Mars — just like the effort it took to get to the moon — is a national commitment."

Aldrin's opinions are strong and earned from experience but they're increasingly becoming minority opinions.

In 2010, President Barack Obama canceled a return mission to the moon. Even NASA is betting on private companies at this point.

It's awarded contracts to firms like SpaceX, founded by PayPal billionaire Elon Musk, hoping these companies will drive America's space program forward, even if they're doing it for a profit.

Another company hoping to commercialize space is Planetary Resources. CEO Chris Lewicki says his company plans to extract wealth from space. How?

By mining asteroids for water and precious metals.

"When money's on the line and there's money to be made, we as humans innovate and do amazing things to get at it and make a profit," he said.

The concept of privatization of space even has some existing companies trying to cash in. Virgin Galactic is accepting reservations for SpaceShipTwo. For about two hours, passengers will be launched into suborbital space. Tickets go for $200,000 each.

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