Space Travel Is a Sexy, Emerging Industry

We have entered a new period where space exploration is no longer the sole province of government.

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I was three years old when Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins blasted off on the Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, walked around on the moon for three hours, conducted experiments, placed a U.S. flag and a sign on the moon, and returned safety to earth.


From its very first days, space exploration has been a highly visible, but strictly confidential, endeavor funded by various government agencies. Fifty-eight years after NASA was founded, space exploration still has the power to captivate and inspire. Whether your metric is in the box office haul of blockbusters like "Gravity" and "the Martian", or the millions upon millions of times the first clear images of Pluto got shared on Facebook this past July, you can see clearly that interest in space exploration remains high among the public at large--and that is presenting exciting and potentially lucrative opportunities for the private sector.

We have entered a new period where space exploration is no longer the sole province of government. The "Final Frontier" is now being explored by private firms, and technology companies have made space travel sexy with a number of futuristic visionaries vying for market share and bragging rights. Companies are planning commercial rides to space as early as next year; a consortium of visionary business leaders are developing the technologies to mine asteroids for the enormous wealth of raw materials in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter; and companies are using super-accurate GPS on rocket boosters to land at a specific point on earth to be reused and repurposed for future missions.

Earlier this month, I was invited to attend the launch of Falcon 9/Jason 3. This mission is a collaboration of 5 different space agencies around the world, with the objective of measuring the sea level in the ocean to ultimately better predict forecasting activities. I was very excited, but I wasn't sure what to expect, since I had never attended a launch before. I thought, based on news articles that we were going to watch a rocket booster attempt to re-land back on earth. We watched--and heard-- the rocket ship (Falcon 9) take off about a mile away from our seating area, and even at that distance, the roar of the rocket was incredible.

The US Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an agency most of us know as "weather forecasters," is the lead agency on the mission. The more accurate their readings, the better they can predict the occurrence and intensity of extreme weather--tornadoes, hurricanes and flooding--which will help them to send out earlier warnings, saving lives and property.

When I was growing up, weather forecasts were notoriously unreliable--but today, we can pinpoint the very minute the rain is expected to fall, thanks to the NOAA's extensive satellite network. And of course, these kinds of readings and measurements are invaluable to the private sector as well--for example drilling rigs in the ocean need to know the currents for their existing operations and routine repairs and maintenance.

Jason 1 (satellite) launched in 2001. Jason 2 which was launched in 2008 has all 18 "major redundant systems" still working accurately. In fact, Jason 2 has outlived its five year expected shelf life, and continues to function, a testament to the skill of the engineers who designed it.

The Jason 3 is almost identical to the Jason 2 and is a 50/50 joint venture paid for by the US and our European counterparts. The mission profile is for Jason 3 to fly 1 minute apart from Jason 2 for 6 months to coordinate timing before splitting up into different orbits that will enable them to collect twice as much data.

As the sun fought to come out and burn through the fog at Vandenberg Airforce Base, we were hopeful to see the glow of the launch about a mile away. Unfortunately, the clouds did not cooperate. Apparently "launch visibility" is not a factor for a launch, as NASA Control Center announced all systems were a go. At T minus 5 minutes, we could barely see the outline of the Falcon 9 rocket in the TV monitor in front of us.

As we counted down the final seconds, I thought to myself, NOAA should have recommended yesterday for the launch as we squinted into the horizon. We heard the launch on the TV monitor but it took about 15 seconds to hear the loud rumbling and then seconds later, we briefly saw a bright light about 4 miles up.

At 16 minutes after launch, the Jason 3 promo piece came on the TV monitor as we lost transmission with the booster. This blackout period is part of every launch, so we waited for the final results. At the post-launch reception, we found out the booster crash landed due to the rough seas (17-foot swells) but that Jason 3 successfully deployed and has joined its sister ship. For almost 60 years, despite the occasional setbacks and tragedies, our exploration of space continues with the same enthusiasm and sense of wonder as when Neil Armstrong took that one small step for man.

Space exploration has revolutionized industry, technology and our society in immeasurable ways. And as we move into an era where the private sector is emerging as a major partner of the exploration and economization of space, California policy makers should prepare. More and more private sector satellites will be launched from California in the coming years. As the cost of commercial space flight drops in the coming decades, our state will be the natural "port of embarkation." We are witnessing the dawn of a new industry, one which has the potential to change our state in unimaginable ways.

That is why private space exploration will be the focus of the first in my "Emerging Industries" discussions in April of this year. My office will convene a discussion among industry leaders, government officials and scientists to discuss the myriad policy, legal and tax issues surrounding the emergence of private sector space exploration. We can't just be focused on the issues of today--we need to plan and prepare for the issues of tomorrow, the next year and the next decade. This will be an exciting and informative discussion, showing once again that California is the state where dreams are turned into reality.