Conversation* with Paula Berinstein
Making Space Happen: Private Space Ventures and the Visionaries Behind
* via email
moon missions, space hotels, reusable rocketships - what's all
this about? Surprised to come upon a diverse and growing array
of private space ventures outside of NASA and the major
aerospace companies, Paula
Berinstein decided to investigate whether space advocates
and entrepreneurs really can
make space happen for everyone.
of her new book examines a topic related to private space development,
such as space tourism or asteroid mining, and profiles one or
more leading proponents in the field. So, for example, Patrick
Collins and Tom
Rogers become central characters in chapters on space
Benson and his company Spacedev
help illustrate the challenges and possibilities of asteroid mining.
Miller, who previously led the advocacy group ProSpace,
becomes the center of a chapter on space
worked for eight years as a programmer/analyst for Rocketdyne
and started Berinstein Research in 1987 to provide business research
and analysis to companies around the world. She has written 6
other books on topics such as business statistics and alternative
Ms. Berinstein was
kind enough to exchange several emails with me in which she responded
to various questions about private space development and commented on
some of my own observations and ideas. I've assembled these emails here
into a conversational format. I think you will find her perspective
quite insightful and illuminating. - C.L.
Though you long had an interest in space and worked at an aerospace
company, you wrote that before you attended the 1998 Space Frontier
Foundation conference you were generally unaware of the parallel
universe of "private space" inhabited by activists, entrepreneurs,
startup companies, & visionaries.
particularly liked this because it meant you came to the book
as an independent outsider with an open mind trying to find out
what was going on: Were these people crackpots or did they offer
a viable alternative approach to getting humanity into space?
So I'll begin by asking what did you conclude? Do the private
space proponents offer a viable, practical approach to space development?
Some of them
do, yes. Interestingly, it's not the tech wizards who will make
space happen for us all, but the entrepreneurs with business and
marketing savvy, the ones who know how to raise and budget funds
and conduct effective public relations campaigns. The
techies are vital, don't get me wrong. However, without business
skills they won't get anywhere. Effective business people can
always find hotshot technical people to help them realize the
vision, but the reverse is not as easy.
would-be private space developers who are on the wrong track and
who, without major changes in their thinking, will not succeed.
And there are a few crackpots, yes, but I see them as tangential.
It isn't the crackpots who do the most damage. It's the plausible
ones with blinders on.
have been some of the responses to your book, particularly from other
people, in and out of the aerospace industry, who also were unaware
of the existence of the private space culture? Did the responses surprise,
disappoint or encourage you?
All three. I recently gave a book talk to a group of retired women,
sharp cookies who had held challenging jobs but who don't attract attention
in the world because they're older, grey-haired ladies. They immediately
grasped the substance of the book and made insightful comments. They
even taught me a thing or two and really made me think. Some were in
favor of private space development and some were not.
were married to men who had worked in the aerospace industry, so they
knew something about mainstream space development. All were surprised
to learn that a shuttle launch costs a billion dollars and that we have
no vehicles that can get us to the Moon. I was both surprised and encouraged
by their responses. They were so interested even though none of them
wanted to go to space personally. They were a better audience than some
professionals I've been exposed to. I even left with homework to do
on their behalf--they really cared.
are those who react in ways I expected: the ones who want to go to space
to have sex in zero gravity, the ones who express surprise that a book
on space business was written by a woman, the ones who want to run out
and sign up for a trip. (I always tell them about the great experiences
they can have right now doing zero gravity and edge-of-space flights.)
people have been wildly enthusiastic. "This is such an important
book!" they say. "You must get the word out." "I'm going to tell
everyone I meet about this book." These people have run the gamut,
from people connected with various aspects of the space industry
to radio hosts who have interviewed me to people who know nothing
about space beyond "Star Trek" and the Hubble Telescope.
there are those who couldn't care less, like my mother. Oh,
she cares that I wrote the book. She just doesn't care about space,
and nothing I say can change her mind. Unfortunately, she isn't
alone, but with six billion people on the planet, there are enough
who do care that I'm not worried.
a lot of reactions surprise me: the radio host who turned the
conversation to spiritual matters, the one who baited me by referring
to Dennis Tito as an "idiot," the people whose whole perception
of space tourism changes when you talk about strapping on wings
and flying in 1/6 gravity.
You devoted a considerable part of the book to space tourism and
began writing [long] before Tito's flight. So you've seen the
subject go from its "giggle-factor" days to an actual business.
do you think it implies about other "crazy" space proposals such
as commercial lunar rovers and orbiting hotels?
those are crazy? I guess I am a bit biased because I personally
never saw those kinds of ideas as crazy. But acknowledging that
there are people who do, I feel that such "crazy" proposals are
analogous to aviation, television, and MRIs a couple of centuries
ago. Right now they are a little ahead of their time, that's all.
What would you have thought about cell phones and boom boxes in
proposals are not crazy to me it's just that I'm particularly interested
in how commonly held perceptions can change. In the case of space tourism,
Tito forced the change in thinking by making it happen with his own
money and willpower.
in many of the proposals for space development, unless you can finance
it yourself, you must do some perception changing first before the idea
is proven. For example, someone like Denise Norris, whom you profile
in the book, must convince enough investors that a lunar sample return
mission is both technically feasible and can provide a profit as well.
a tough sell. I'm just wondering if the success so far with space tourism
will help someone like her or if the paradigm of spaceflight as infinitely
difficult and dangerous remains only slightly shaken?
of course, Denise's challenges just increased exponentially because
one of her competitors, TransOrbital, has been cleared to go to the
Moon by the U.S. State Department and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric
Administration, and her company, Applied Space Resources, has not. However,
that aside, Applied Space Resources and every other space exploration
company needs to reduce risk: technical risk, market risk, and investment
risk. The technical risk involves the possibility of the technology
failing to work as it's supposed to. Market risk means you won't get
enough customers at your price. And investment risk involves your investors
failing to get their money and profit back in the expected time frame.
to sound like a broken record, but the key here is baby steps. You know,
engineers always say "Build a little, fly a little." You do a few things,
test and perfect them, and when they work the way they should, you add
a bit more and repeat the process. When you've built a good foundation,
then you go for the bigger things.
far as the public perception of spaceflight as infinitely difficult
and dangerous is concerned, that remains because it's still true.
Of course the same was true at the beginning of aviation, but repeated
attempts and experience, failures included, resolved that in time.
The problem is one of managing expectations. People are going to
die in space, and the world will have to accept that as part of
the process or we won't make it happen. When have people not died,
though, in the development of any transportation industry? Which
is not to say that it's a good thing, or even a neutral thing when
they do. It's horrifying. The thing is to make sure those who volunteer
understand and are willing to accept the risks.
to whether the flights of Tito and Shuttleworth will help space exploration
and tourism companies, yes, I believe they will. Whatever happens from
here, you can't undo what they did. Their flights publicized the possibility
of space tourism to the entire world. Hate 'em, love 'em, or don't care,
you sure have heard of them, and you've heard of space tourism. You
couldn't say that before they flew.
Tito "event" was the first major encounter between the world of private
space and NASA. It wasn't pretty. Though Shuttleworth's flight went
off fairly smoothly, my impression is that many at NASA, as well as
in the mainstream aerospace industry and press, still have a "deer in
the headlights" response to space tourism. It's as though it conflicts
so deeply with their worldview of how space exploration works that they
just want it to go away and not bother them anymore.
you think that the NASA/Big Aerospace culture will continue to resist
and even threaten private space ventures? For example, I could imagine
that if a X Prize or sub-orbital space tourist vehicle has a major accident,
the big boys would quickly put their weight behind an effort either
to outlaw the field entirely or to regulate it so tightly it becomes
financially impossible to run a business.
imagine that too. People who are threatened act in extreme ways. However,
I don't see a scenario such as the one you describe as permanent. Who
ever thought the Soviet Union would fall or that IBM would crash and
burn? Anything can happen. Just remember Newton's second law. For any
backlash that occurs, there will be a phoenix that will rise again.
Was that a mixed metaphor?
Tito entering the ISS
an outsider's viewpoint, perhaps you see strengths and weaknesses
in the tactics used by private space proponents. If, for example,
a group of space entrepreneurs, such as the ones in your book,
came to you and asked for your unadorned opinion on what they
were doing right or wrong, what would you tell them?
First of all,
I would applaud companies like SpaceDev and Space Adventures,
who are essentially bootstrapping their way to commercial space
exploration and space tourism.
are focused on bringing in revenues they can use to fund the development
of advanced products and services. They are taking what SpaceDev CEO
Jim Benson calls "baby steps," strengthening their companies and winning
recognition from customers, investors, journalists, and the public.
SpaceDev is winning
small contracts; Space
Adventures is offering the public space-like experiences. While both
are aiming higher, they aren't trying to get there all at once. (SpaceDev
wants to do commercial space exploration, like missions to asteroids
and Mars; Space Adventures wants to offer suborbital and orbital flights
to the public.)
These companies have effective PR. They put out press releases regularly,
have email bulletins and newsletters that go to interested parties,
do media events, etc. They know what image they want to project, and
they build their companies around that image, always staying on message.
They set milestones and crow loudly when they achieve them, showing
the public that they are doers who not only have a vision, but who can
deliver on that vision.
All this is not to say that everything goes perfectly for these companies
or that they don't have to reinvent themselves from time to time. But
they are run by serious business people who know how to get things done.
Another thing I like about these companies is that they have long-range
vision. They let people know that reaching their goals will take a long
time, but that's okay. In the meantime there will be milestones that
will constitute significant achievements in and of themselves. While
short-term profit is important to them, they are not sacrificing their
long-term goals for its sake. This is pretty unusual in the business
world today, and I applaud them for their courage.
thing I think that SpaceDev at least is doing right. I know there
are those who will disagree with me here, but I think Jim Benson's
declaration that he plans to fly to and claim an asteroid as his
company's property is brilliant. I'll tell you why. This controversial
subject raises the company's profile and grabs attention for commercial
space development as a whole. This kind of attention is exactly
what the industry needs. That's why Tito and Shuttleworth are
so important: they put space tourism on the map, got people talking.
Benson will do the same for commercial space exploration, should
he actually go to the asteroid Nereus as planned. Controversy
is good! There's nothing like a juicy media story to get things
moving. Will some people hate what he's doing? Sure. And some
will love it. But no one will be neutral, and the issue will never
go away again.
As far as
the things some entrepreneurs are doing wrong, I would say the
following. Companies that have no idea how they're going to get
to revenue and an exit strategy are bound to fail. If they're
technology companies, they need to know which companies will buy
or license their technology, and they need to be positioning themselves
to be acquired. If they will be providing products and services
to the public, they need to start their PR now and build a following,
and they need to listen carefully to their potential customers
so they can offer something saleable. Technology for technology's
sake is a losing proposition.
In addition, these
companies have to be building rapport and acquiring strategic partners,
and that includes NASA, other federal government agencies, state and
local authorities and departments, and other businesses. Divisive rhetoric
is not the way to go. These companies must build cooperative relationships
and win-win situations. You do something for me, I'll do something for
you, and together we will strengthen our industry. Which reminds me,
space entrepreneurs need to work through trade associations. There's
the Space Travel and Tourism Division of the Space Transportation Association.
If that doesn't work, form a new trade association, set up a lobbying
mechanism in Washington and various states, and conduct yourselves professionally
and in an organized way. There's strength in numbers.
Of course, without a strong business case, none of this will work.
to Part II
welcomes further questions and comments on her book.
Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her web site is at Berinstein