Friday, April 1, 2011

Bob Richards' PSERF, March 25, 2011

Bob Richards, a "Space Dragon" who wants to expand the reach of the human race... 
and make a profit doing so!

In his talk last Friday, Bob Richards, a silicon valley space entrepreneur referred to the folks that blog about him. By virtue of this entry in my PSERF handbook, I suppose that now includes me. I cannot admit that I know the man well*, but he is an interesting fellow and his heart seems to be in the right place. For this special speaker, we met in a special location; not in the Biological and Geological Sciences Building, but over in the Ivey school of business. This was an appropriate choice, as Bob's expertise is in the area of space business. His primary goal these days? Expanding the economic sphere of the Earth from Geosynchronous orbit out by a factor of ten to encompass the Moon.

The presentation was free-flowing and Bob stayed afterwards to chat with several of us at the University's Graduate Club. While he spoke without slides, his talk was not unusual fare for PSERF which has attracted interesting speakers of all types, from experts on Space Weaponry through discussions of early cartography and the "inside baseball" story of science-driven space missions. Largely, I'm getting the impression that PSERF exists mainly to expand our concept of what we can do with these planetary science degrees of ours. In that vein, Bob had a great deal to offer us by describing in detail his experience with the emerging field of private space exploration.

This is an area where Bob has been active for some time. Over 30 years ago, he was one of the founders of the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space and later the International Space University in 1987. More recently, he is the founder of not one, but two Lunar X-Prize contenders; first Odyssey Moon, and more recently Moon Express. As such, Bob had interesting inside stories to tell us about the first X-Prize (Ansari) which was put together by Peter Diamandis in the mid 1990s. One thing I had not realized was the extent to which Diamandis had channeled the "Spirit of St. Louis" in founding the X-Prize. We've heard about the comparisons between today's commercialization of space and the early government encouragement of aviation a number of times since the Augustine hearings. But Diamandis' initial announcement and recruiting of St. Louis businessmen to fund the X-Prize was truly inspired, and something I was not aware of.

Additional things that you might not have known (or might only be news to me): (1) the X in X-prize was meant to be a temporary space filler while Diamandis sought a charter sponsor, but proved so popular that even after the Ansari family signed on they retained this title. (2) At that press conference in St. Louis and even as late as  2002, Diamandis did not have the $10 million needed for the prize. To get the balance (somewhere around the 50% mark), it was necessary to engage in some creative financing. As such, Diamandis went to the famous insurer, Lloyd's of London, and took out a policy wherein Lloyd's would bet against the project. As it was, the whole scheme nearly came apart until Scaled Composites finally won the challenge with only months to spare on the policy.

Ultimately, Diamandis' prize was multiply successful. Not only did a company step up and perform the first private space flight, but in winning the competition the product also became economically viable with Virgin Galactic swooping in and ordering a fleet of suborbital spacecraft. Furthermore, many of those companies who were founded to compete for the original X-Prize have become successful ventures competing for NASA grants and offering their own products up to a nascent market.

But Bob's talk was about more than just the past. These days he is interested in the economics of the future. Some were a bit perplexed by his decision last year to resign from Odyssey Moon and create a new company at this late stage in the race. Bob was able to shed some light on that mystery. First, some background: Odyssey Moon was the first company founded to take up the challenge and was the front runner for quite some time, though it has fallen down the ranks lately. That downfall was economic and is related, after a sort, to the ITAR issues which have bedeviled the commercial launch industry in the US since the late 1990s. (As a side note, the major beneficiary has been Arianespace which has no such restrictions and has seen their market share explode in the last ten years)

The reason for this is that even though the $10 million Ansari X-prize was not even close to covering the costs of flying Space Ship One, the existence of a prize helps to defray the risk of building a company to compete for the prize, since there will be some definable economic gain to be had. The same argument is true with the $30 million Google Lunar X-Prize for a robotic lunar lander. So when the NASA decided to offer a matching $30 million to buy lunar data from those companies who got to the moon, the economics of the situation changed somewhat. That supplement was unavailable to foreign companies, as NASA rules do not permit shipping taxpayer money overseas. Thus, with one fell swoop, the potential value of each non-US company was cut in half. With Odyssey incorporated in the Isle of Man, Bob saw only one way out of what he has termed his own "kobiashi maru:" he needed to jump ship and create a US-based company. That company is Moon Express.

Despite this, the feeling seems to go beyond simple economic reasons. This was the first time that Bob has been back in Canada since some controversial remarks about his reasons for having decamped for Silicon Valley. By his own admission, the comment that "Canada is not a good place to start a space company" intentionally rankled a few feathers. Still, he argues that his comments were intended to be pointed in order to get the attention of those in a position to help the Canadian space industry. There is certainly a place for that, especially coming from someone like Bob, though I prefer to try to catch my flies with honey.

Ultimately, it seems that Bob's heart is in the right place and his remarks are not those of a frustrated man, but instead represent the feelings of a man who has had his eyes opened to a different way of doing things. I had a similar moment in Arizona when I realized that when it came to graduate education, it didn't have to be the way it was back in Canada. Likewise, Bob claims to have "found his tribe" in Silicon Valley, perhaps echoing Mark Zuckerberg's comment in "The Social Network" about going to California, where the action is. Indeed, he mentioned that there were a number of "VCs" (Venture Capitalists) who had made their money in the tech boom and were looking for a project where they could make a difference and make some money doing it.

They also are willing to take on risk in a way that NASA has been unable to, for good reason. I have been working on a separate post about risk in spaceflight based on some conversations I had at LPSC and I won't preempt myself too much here. Suffice to say that by assuming some risk, Bob feels that the cost of exploration can come down by an order of magnitude. That opens up a whole host of possibilities which I will be keen to explore. For instance, a Phoenix-Like Lander would have a hard time with economic justification to private enterprise at $475 million, but at $47.5 million, there might be more takers.

I'd like to wish Bob the best of luck with Moon Express and look forward to the day when we can do planetary exploration in the private sector. Who knows? In a couple of years I may be looking for a job in that industry.
As an aside, I know that Bob is looking for help, both in engineering and science with his venture. If you feel you have something you can offer, I'd encourage you to contact him and get involved. The direct route can be surprisingly effective - my Phoenix experience is the result of cornering Peter Smith right after his initial press conference in August of 2003 and asking for a job, point-blank. Of course, there might be some personal risk involved - I don't know if you can draw a salary from Moon Express yet. But nothing in life is certain, and a bit of risk (if you can afford it) can pay off big time.

* Since Bob was in a story-telling mood, I will add one of my own: Bob was actually one of my first twitter followers way back in June of 2009 after we had a chat on what has got to be one of the world's longer elevator rides: from the top to the bottom of the CN Tower.

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