'We will see commercial space flights as soon as next year' - space entrepreneur

Space, the final frontier, has for decades belonged to governments. Only the chosen ones were allowed to explore what lies beyond our planet. But is there a chance for space exploration to go private? Is there are any profit to be made from it? And finally, when will the day come when an average person will be able to buy a ticket to the cosmos? We ask space entrepreneur and activist, founder of the Space Frontier Foundation Rick Tumlinson on Sophie&Co.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Rick Tumlinson, space entrepreneur and activist, founder of Space Frontier Foundation, it’s really great to have you on our show. Welcome!

Rick Tumlinson: I’m excited, it’s wonderful to be in Moscow.

SS:Just want to talk a little bit about your latest project which is the asteroid mining. I mean, is it even possible, and why? What’s there - minerals, resources, water, gold, maybe?

RT: My scientists that I work with don’t let me talk too much about the gold, but it’s there.

SS: The gold is there? Wow.

RT: There is gold and platinum, but that’s almost a byproduct of what we want to do. If you think about it, everything that we have on the Earth, we’re going to be able to find in space. The Earth is basically made of asteroids, if you think about it. They just kind of came together very early. So, if we can get out there and harvest the resources with the people and different companies that are moving towards going into space - we’d like to set up a sort of gas station and the supply centers in space. So, most of what we’re going to be doing is actually for use out there.

SS: Not to bring back home.

RT: Not so much, not so much. See, the cost of going into space right now…

SS: But what would you do with the gold in space?

RT: Well, maybe we’d let a little of it come down here… You flood the market and then the price drops, of course. But we’re not really looking into that area too much. Our goal really is to be sort of this gas station. There are a lot asteroids that have things like water ice. Now, if you have water - you have air, you have water, of course, you have what you need basically to make rocket-propellant - so you have gas for rockets. That’s because it costs so much, using rockets to carry everything out in the space. So, if we’re already out there, and we’re already processing those things and preparing them for people who’re coming - and we believe they’re coming - then we can, you know, hopefully, make some money.

SS: Before we get to people coming and all the private space agencies that are taking interest in what you’re saying, I want to talk about one particular meteorite that worries us here. That’s the Chelyabinsk meteorite, obviously - because it was huge! It scared the hell out of us. How come no one saw that coming?

RT: Basically, I think it’s...I’m going to have to say “politicians”.

SS: Really?

RT: People in those areas of government haven’t paid much attention… You know, in most of our cultures, we have a tendency to respond to disasters after they happened.

SS: But I’m just saying, everything is being observed, and watched…

RT: It’s not. We’re not really looking very much at different sizes that are capable causing damage. It doesn’t take a very large meteorite - by the way, when it’s in space, it’s called “asteroid”, when it hits the Earth, we call it a “meteorite” - so, it doesn’t take a very large one to cause a great deal of damage, as we saw. That was not a very-very big meteorite, and so, if you’re looking at something like that in space, which is black and you’re looking against the sky, and it’s black - it’s very hard to see, first of all. But you have to actually to be looking first. So we haven’t put much money…

SS: Into looking and observing.

RT: We are not looking that often, and it takes something like Chelyabinsk...you know, the same week we had another one that came very close.

SS: Yeah.

RT: Two at once. Neither one of them had anybody seen before.

SS: I thought you were going to start talking about it, but I’ve read that your company - Deep Space Industries - you guys had a plan a year ago to actually deploy spacecraft to prevent meteorite catastrophes. Where are you at with that? And then I’m thinking, if that’s actually possible, the idea of space-based defense, that would, like, really worry the defense ministers around the world, no?

RT: Let’s take that into two parts. As a far as trying to get out there and explore - keep in mind, for us, it’s almost the same program, you know, the threat and the promise, so almost the same program as far as what we want to mine and study for our business and prospect - its very much the same sort of asteroids that you want to protect the planet from. It’s not that we’re Bruce Willis in the Armageddon movie or something… We want to put people who are out there, who can learn how to work and learn these kinds of things. But, first, we have to go out and find them. So, when we come together with the Space Agency, they want to go out and do science, they want to study the history of the Solar System - we want to go out and look at the same rocks and what they’re made of and how we can mine. So, we’re looking at the whole set of different spacecraft that are very-very small, there’s a new kind of spacecraft that captures the imagination; especially, of the younger generation, called “CubeSats”.

SS: They are cube-sized?

RT: They’re actually 10x10 centimeters. They are very small. You know, it’s like your phone. It’s amazing what your phone can do, it can take beautiful pictures, you can do all kinds of things. Most of our telephones have more in them than the spacecraft.

SS: I guess it’s not about the size, if something with a size of a phone can destroy an asteroid it can also destroy the whole city - that’s what I’m talking about.

RT: We’re not talking about using those to kill the asteroids. I’m just saying that we can put t he equipment to go and study the asteroids, and take pictures. What it does is that it makes it very accessible, it makes it very low-cost. We could send hundreds all over the Solar system and start tracking all of the different asteroids that we find. As far as trying to stop them - that gets a little...the idea for example that you would go and throw something and asteroid would explode - the only problem with that is that now you’ve got 10 asteroids. So, rather than one bullet you have a shotgun coming at you - so you’re not going to want to do that. What we may want to do is to get up near the asteroid or to attach something to it and slowly push it, just a little bit. Keep in mind, as they go around, if you push it just a little, then if you’re thinking it’s going to hit Earth at some point, push it just a little bit and maybe 5 years later it comes back around and it won’t be a threat to us.

SS:So you’re basically talking about the constant control of the asteroid more than anything else?

RT: It doesn’t have to be constant control, it’s just a little nudge several years before you think it’s going to hit you. So, there’s some that we are looking out for 2020s, that may be coming to the same place at the same time we are. That’s a bad day, you really don’t want that happen. So right now, we’re looking at different ways of doing that. You could get close to it, just using the gravity of the object that you are flying, you can pull it a little bit. We’re not going to be shooting rockets at them or things like that. It’s not that kind of defense, really. It doesn’t really make sense.

SS: What you are saying is actually making a lot of sense to me right now, but you’ve also said that space exploration is bound to be mostly private. Now, I’m thinking, like, huge expeditions and voyages like the Columbus voyage wasn’t private, thinking, James Cook wasn’t private. I am actually thinking that every time humanity goes on to conquer new frontiers, it’s a government-funded thing.

RT: Not exactly. If you look a little more closely at those periods of time, what happened is that government will put up the money for the early exploration. In the U.S. we had some very famous explorers called Louis and Clark and Thomas Jefferson gave them some money to cross-over into the West and see what was there. Then they came back and they did surveys and they told us “here’s the plants, here’s the animals, here’s what it looks like”. Then, the pioneers came in the covered wagons and moved out across. It’s not a great example as far as being politically correct, but if you look at the history of let’s say, the South American experiment. Yes, Columbus was funded by kings and queens, but the Conquistadors and the people that went to South America, if you think about it, they were private. It wasn’t like some Spanish army went down to South America. It was all kinds of private individuals that were out to get gold and all kinds of other things, who agreed to give a piece of what they’ve found to the king and queen. I don’t want to go conquer the poor people on the Moon, but, you know…

SS: I think you’re missing the point of my question. For me it’s all about financing, because something like space exploration is so expensive. It’s much more expensive than crossing an ocean on a vessel like Columbus did. So, I’m thinking, the costs are enormous, the profits impossible to predict, so - businessmen, they are usually very pragmatic dudes, they are pragmatic people. Where you are going to find people who are going to invest that amount of money - they are basically risking the money, because they don’t know if its ever going to come back to them.

RT: We’re finding different kinds of people that are interested in doing this and we have some very wealthy people in the U.S. that are putting money. We have a few coming in from Russia as well, they are putting money into this. Yes, it’s expensive at first, and that’s why you kind of need a partnership. You know, a lot of the technologies we’re talking about using and the infrastructure we’re using has been the infrastructure and technology that’s been developed over the last 50 years for the government’s space programs. So we’re leveraging off of that, let’s say, investment by the taxpayers. Absolutely. But as we begin to move into this, I think what we’re finding is passion in people who have gone out and made money.

SS: Passion versus profit?

RT: They’re going to make profit later.

SS: How do you know that? That is just like assumption.

RT: I can’t absolutely approve it, but I think history kind of shows it in the long run. If we can get out there, we know roughly what’s out there. We know roughly what we can do with those things that are out there. The biggest mistake is to look at that and say, “Well, I’m not going to go”, right? So the kind of people we’re getting, they’re not stupid people. We have Paul Allen from Microsoft, we got Jeff Bezos from Amazon in America. We have Elon Musk in England. These people are not stupid. These are people though, who grew up during the period of time they were watching “Star Trek”, watching the early space programs and Appolo-Soyuz, things like that going on. Now, they’ve made their money, they’ve come back again, and they want to invest in the future. You know, in many different realms, you’re seeing a new kind of investment, where people are not doing it at 100% to make a lot of money fast. They want to do something that makes money, but does good at the same, and if you look at what’s possible in space, the kind of the future we can create, this is that kind of investment.

SS: So, Rick, you actually believe in humans settling in space.

RT: Absolutely.

SS: I’m thinking, what kind of person would want to live on an uninhabited planet, permanently being screened off, with no possibility of faster turn home over a life on this beautiful planet with so much green, water, air, roses, women, kittens - why would you choose that over this?

RT: First of all, everything you’ve just rattled off is something we can either create or take with us.

SS: ”Create” sounds kind of scary in the context of creating a life on…

RT: We can take what we find there and from that we can create an environment...basically, we can create any environment we want. You have to think about the fact that we live on a tiny-tiny planet. I think Carl Sagan once said that “our Sun is less than one grain of sand on all the desert and all the beaches on the entire planet”. And around this Sun there is even smaller particle called “the Earth”. So, for us, to look out there and say “well, we’re done”, is almost ridiculous to me. We haven’t even started to start. We don’t want what we’re going to find. Keep in mind, some of the first times we’ve ever realized how precious this little planet is was when we saw pictures come back from space. We had to go out there to look back here…

SS: That’s when you realized how fragile the whole Earth is.

RT: Exactly.

SS: You were working with Mir corp. During your activities there, I know that you’ve tried to make the Mir station financially viable, and that is when you encountered resistance from NASA. Why?

RT: There were many factors. I’ve been a proponent of free enterprise, I’ve been a proponent of… if you look at NASA as those government explorers that you’ve spoke of - I’ve been looking at that, having grown up during that period when they were doing that exploration, and I looked over the government agencies and say “Thank you very much. You’ve done your job, now let us take over. Let us, the people, the settlers, the shopkeepers, the entrepreneurs.” And what was happening is that NASA and the governments of the world had this very big space station that they’ve wanted to build, which we call the International Space Station now. Here we came with this crazy little idea that we would work with our friends at Energiya and together we would create a little private facility.

SS: But, I mean, NASA is using so many private contractors now. They don’t seem to mind it right now, why was it bad then?

RT: Because there was contractors who were working for NASA. See, since the beginning of the space program and the space race, space has been in the hands of the governments. So, you only had government astronauts, you only had government space missions. At the time we were doing the Mir project, we were coming and saying “You know what? We don’t have to be a government, we just want to go out and do our thing”. By the way, the original plan for the Mir project was to use the existing Mir space station as we would call it “construction shack”, as place to camp while we build what we were going to call Mir-2 and then we would eventually go out and mine asteroids. That was the long-term plan even then, and repair satellites in space, and provide other services.

SS: Since, you know, we’re talking about space becoming very private, the private enterprise definitely holds enormous potential, but then we have some things that are just flat-on stupid - I mean, sending pets at pet funerals in space - this is just really silly and ridiculous, why would you spend so many resources on something like that.

RT: First of all, I’m not spending those resources.

SS: I know, but I’m just asking you.

RT: I think they call those people “customers”, and, we do really-really silly things everywhere. We have to be frank about it. People are going spend their money to do silly things. Those are not taxpayer money, anything like that. I’m not going to defend somebody burying their pet in space - that’s just the market. If I offer you the chance to do something in space, and I say to you “if you pay me however many roubles I will do something for you in space” and you come up to me and say “I want to bury my kitten, Olga’s ashes in space, here’s 100,000 roubles”, - I’ll say “Okay, fine”, you know.

SS: Let’s talk about caprices of the space tourists and, you know, space tourism in general. RT spoke to one of the most famous future space tourists, and that's singer Sara Brightman. We asked her if she was afraid of anything. That's what she had to say:

Sara: The way that I've set my mind about this is to expect the unexpected because anything can happen. But I have been in the centrifuge and the long arm and I have gone up to 8G from here to here. And the experience of that, I actually found it wonderful and probably could have taken more, but they didn't need to take me further.

SS:So, has space tourism become more comfortable? Because I know that the first space tourist, Dennis Tito did not feel well at all while he was in orbit, even though he was trained for that.

RT: First of all, I actually wrote articles at the time... I signed up Dennis I was the first one to meet him and say "let's go into space". In fact, originally, we were going to fly him on the Mir and he was competing with American film director James Cameron for the first ticket to go. And...I hate the word "tourist". It is so demeaning in the sense..

SS: I'm just asking if ever wanted to fly and had that amount of money, is it something that has become more comfortable in terms of travelling?

RT: People react in different ways to it, as far as the biology of it. You don't hear a lot about it, but even the astronauts and the cosmonauts, many of them also have different issues with it, but they're getting better at it, and they're getting better at making it more and more comfortable. I think if you went to Dennis or any of the others that have flown and asked them if they would do that again, everyone would have probably said yes. It's not even the discomfort...I don't know if you had ever been inside of the Soyuz capsule, in which they were flying.

SS:No, but I've been in space camp when I was a kid.

RT: I've climbed inside of the Soyuz capsule and the idea of climbing in that thing, which is tiny-tiny, like this, and then they close the hatch and then you fall to the Earth..it scares the heck out of me. But if I got the chance to do it - absolutely, I would do it, it's life-changing, according to everybody I've spoken to.

SS:I understand you admire a lot Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and he's building a spaceport. They're actually ready to test commercial space vehicles already. Are we going to see boarding passes being passed out soon?

RT: Actually I have one or two that they printed many years ago, and they were very optimistic, they thought they were going to fly several years ago. I have a spacesuit company called "Orbital Outfitters" and we're actually doing spacesuits for the competition. the company that's competing with Richard Branson, they are called XCOR, and it's very interesting, because XCOR is a very small company but they're actually might fly either first or within a couple of months upon Branson's flight. So, Virgin Galactic, they are carrying 6 people at the time... Now, this is actually, where they can actually be called tourists. I used to make a joke, like, if you have somebody like Dennis Tito and he's on a big rocket and it's very dangerous - that's one thing. Now, when the nice lady at the front of the bus says "look left and look right and take your pictures" - then you can call them tourists. Richard Branson is going to have 6 people at the time looking out the window with little Virgin Galactic bag for being sick, and all that, so... They can be called tourists. I think it's going to start probably towards the end of the next year, we're expecting the first flights.

SS: Oh wow.

RT: I've been out too long in the spaceports. They are actually in the U.S. and I think some in Europe and I think down in Arabian Peninsula and down there they are also building spaceports. In fact, next week, our spacesuit company and XCOR break ground on our space facility in the middle of the place called Midland, Texas, which is part of Texas that's very much like the surface of Mars.

SS: But you, in my opinion, are working in something that's even more mind-boggling than spaceport. It seems to me it's like the most extreme form of sport. You're working on people returning from space without spacecraft.

RT: Yes, space-diving.

SS: How's that even possible?

RT: That's probably going to be my next project, I've been working on that on the airplane over here with some young people that were very-very excited about it. We started to do this in 2007, we had the cover of the popular science magazine and my young partner at the time was an adventurer and he was using one of those suits with a wings on them and he had an accident so we had to put it off. Now we're doing it again. The idea of space-diver is that at some point we may have emergencies and you're going to want to get out of the spacecraft, and the only way to go, of course, is going to be to step outside. It turns out that it's very feasible. In fact, there could be a day when you can actually step out of the space-station all the way out in orbit and come back to the Earth. Much of the early research was actually done in Russia. There are very interesting studies from 60s and 70s by both the U.S. and Russia that show that you can come back down to the Earth without a spacecraft. Basically...oh, and by the way, when you come from orbit - we call it "orbital surfing", because you're in something that looks like a little raft. It's the difference between...if you drop a pebble, and you drop a leaf - right - if you spread things out a little bit, then it slows you down. You still get a fire coming up around you, but then you're riding a middle of this thing, which may be made of, like, asbestos or something like that. You come down, and eventually you get rid of that and then you turn down and you dive.

SS:Can we encounter someone when we're diving through space? I remember talking to Canada's ex-defense minister, and he's convinced that there are UFOs. He's convinced that we're not alone out there. What do you think, are we alone out there?

RT: I talk a lot about this to different people. I would like to believe that we're not alone, but I don't have evidence of that. As far as "are they out there?" - probably. Have they made it to the level of civilization - you don't have any proof. We can't see... and there are friends of mine, out of place called SETI, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, they want to see, like in the movies, like "contact" and they're looking out... - they can't find anything. So, the way I look at is if they are out there - great! I hope they are. But I think it's very important that we get out there. Whatever ET comes to the Solar system, I want to be out there and sell them a cheeseburger.

SS: Alright, thank you so much for this wonderful insight in the world of space exploration. We were talking to Rick Tumlinson, space entrepreneur, activist, founder of Space Frontier foundation, talking about space exploration actually going private and talking about everything we could do in space if only we open up our minds. That's it for this edition of Sophie&Co, we will see you next time.