Travel: Beam Me Up, Venture Capitalists


Outside magazine, May 1995

Travel: Beam Me Up, Venture Capitalists

Stargazing idea men and their way-out-there schemes for twenty-first century adventurers
By Steve O’Keefe

Admit it: every time you see clips of Alan Shepard bashing golf balls on the Moon back in 1971, you wonder if mankind’s leisure pursuits might be more fun in outer space. Well, they might. For example, while Mercury’s temperatures aren’t ideal–highs can hit 620 degrees Fahrenheit–the place would be a dream for properly outfitted mountain-bikers: a planet’s worth of Moab,
Utah, without the trail restrictions.

Unfortunately, the traditional organizer of American space adventure, NASA, isn’t getting the job done. The main reason: budget constraints. The last can-do vision offered by a president–George Bush’s 1989 Space Exploration Initiative, a plan to put humans on Mars by 2019–was laughed out of Congress, thanks to its whopping $400 billion price tag.

But as writer B. Alexander Howerton explains in his new book, Free Space, private-sector players are stepping in, many of them former NASA employees and aerospace veterans. Howerton, a sci-fi buff and aerospace stock analyst, profiles a dozen companies that intend to explore, exploit, or otherwise pave the way to space in the coming decades. The
motive, obviously, is profit. And while there is a predictably schlock side to the commercialization of space–one group hopes to finance a planned $1.27 billion lunar colony through souvenir sales and production of “a major motion picture”–there’s a good side, too. The rocket engine of capitalism dictates that if there’s money to be made in a private space race, an intergalactic
land rush could follow.

Of course, it’s early to start buying lunar luggage. These schemes require tremendous amounts of risk capital, and there’s no guarantee that investors will leap into the void. But for just a moment, let’s get on board with Howerton–“Space is our playground,” he exults–and look at the possible galaxy of opportunities for outdoor types.

Mars Needs Active Lifestylers
“The surface of Mars offers spectacular climbing opportunities,” says Robert Zubrin, a 42-year-old engineer at Martin Marietta Astronautics in Denver, Colorado. His project, Mars Direct–a private effort funded mainly by Martin Marietta–aims to put a 100-person colony on Mars by 2030. Chief obstacle: Zubrin says he’ll get there only if “someone really turns on the money,” about
$40 billion in all. Still, Zubrin’s scheme has garnered respectful attention from experts because it could solve the biggest barrier to a Mars shot: reducing the weight of the fuel. His solution is to deploy an on-site chemical-processing plant that will produce burnable methane from Mars’s ample supply of carbon dioxide. A manned flight would follow and fill up the tanks for the
flight back home.

Zubrin is right about those nifty Martian challenges. At 88,600 feet, Olympus Mons makes Mount Everest look like it should be called Gidget’s Pimple. Climbers wanting aboard ought to bone up on science. Zubrin says he’ll initially need “two Scotties and two Spocks,” folks who can fix spacecraft and run topographic surveys. Later launches will include “doctors, teachers,
and–hopefully–no lawyers.”

The Love Float
If you’re looking for a perfect getaway, how about an orbiting Club Med? Your host is John House, a 35-year-old businessman who in 1991 founded the Outer Space Development Company. The Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based outfit has more than 100 people working on construction of Prelude, a $10 billion space station that will contain 16 11,000-cubic-foot
modules. Twelve of these would be rented for commercial use, and four would be reserved for vacationing guests. House, who this fall will start displaying a prototype of the modules to potential investors, is determined to be in orbit by 2002.

Among many enticements, House says he’ll outfit weightless vacationers with wings, an experience “very similar to hang gliding.” He’ll also offer “zero-g love grottoes.” Will weightlessness affect sexual performance? “To my knowledge,” he says, “nothing should prevent you from doing whatever you want. The equalized pressure might even give you greater endurance.”

Get Your Feet Wet Now
Dennis Chamberland, the 43-year-old founder of the Orlando, Florida-based League of New Worlds, isn’t heading into space himself, but he’s planning to service future colonizers by building undersea habitats as “analogs” to prefab housing on other planets. Chamberland, a bioengineer who designs advanced life-support systems for the aerospace industry, has drawn up a “two-person
enclosed habitat,” dubbed ER-1, meant for use in sea or space. By the end of the decade, in a $6 million program, one of the 500-cubic-foot fiberglass pods is scheduled to be in place on the continental shelf off the Eastern Seaboard.

Chamberland invites people to join him in central Florida for one-day site surveys in the Atlantic Ocean. All you need is scuba certification and a Captain Kirkian “drive to participate.”

Being There by Staying Put
If you’d like to sample distant worlds but never leave home, an Arlington, Virginia-based group called LunaCorp is aiming to please. By decade’s end, LunaCorp’s goal is to place two remote-controlled research rovers on the Moon and have them operated from Earth by joystick-wielding civilians at a U.S. theme park. The rover is being developed by many of the same people who built
Dante II, a terrestrial robot that was tested in an Alaska volcano last year with mixed results: It got stuck and had to be rescued by humans.

David Gump, LunaCorp’s 44-year-old founder, is negotiating with two parks to build his lunar rover exhibit. If it happens, Nintendo junkies will finally be able to justify their addiction: Using joysticks and real-time video, they’ll help the wheeled rovers explore the lunar surface.