Nov 18, 2002  Part II

A Conversation* with Paula Berinstein
Author of
Making Space Happen: Private Space Ventures and the Visionaries Behind Them

* via email

Commercial 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.

Each chapter 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 tourism. Jim Benson and his company Spacedev help illustrate the challenges and possibilities of asteroid mining. Charles Miller, who previously led the advocacy group ProSpace, becomes the center of a chapter on space activism.

Ms. Berinstein 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 energy.

Making Space Happen Making Space Happen
by Paula Berinstein

(Amazon Books)

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.

Paula Berinstein Paula Berinstein

HS: 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.

I 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.

There are 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.

HS: What 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.

A few 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.

Some 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.

Then 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.

Frankly, 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.

Transorbital Trailblazer
Then there 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.)

Info & Links for
New Space Business Concepts

* Space Tourism
* Lunar Missions
* In Space Services
* Space Advertising
* Space Entertainment
   & Promotion
* Reusable Launchers
* Space Industries
* Others

HS: 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.

What do you think it implies about other "crazy" space proposals such as commercial lunar rovers and orbiting hotels?

You think 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 1962?

HS: These 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.

But 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.

That's 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?

Well, 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.

I hate 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.

As 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. Lunarcorp Rover
LunarCorp Rover


As 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.

HS: The 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.

Do 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.

I can 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
Dennis Tito entering the ISS

HS: From 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.

These companies 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.

There's another 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.

Asteroid Mining

Spacedev & the Near Earth Asteroid Prospector (NEAP)

How Asteroid Mining Will Work - Howstuffworks

Mining Near Earth Asteroids -

Mining Asteroids: Melting trapped ice could turn a profit for private companies, with metal processing not far behind - IEEE Spectrum - Aug.01

More Space Mining Links...

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.

Continue to Part II

Paula welcomes further questions and comments on her book.
Contact her at Her web site is at Berinstein Research.