Tesla Motors (TSLA) CEO Elon Musk made waves when he announced his side company SpaceX would be attempting to one day launch a for-profit colonization of Mars, envisioning up to 80,000 colonists living on the red planet. While experts like famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson have shot down the idea for being wholly unfeasible for a private company to undertake, SpaceX has already received hundreds of millions in government money to advance their program – and they’re not the only ones. Successful or no, SpaceX’ ambitions beg the question: is there big money for the private sector in space?
To be sure, there are already several publically traded companies that profit off of space exploration and space travel. Alcoa Inc. (AA) produces aluminum for space capsules. General Electric Company (GE) makes many of the advanced propulsion systems used to propel spaceships into orbit. Ditto Lockheed Martin (LMT) . Raytheon Company (RTN), possibly most famous for producing Tomahawk missiles, also has a very active space solutions program, producing sensors, data processing centers, and space junk tracking systems.
But these companies all work in conjunction with NASA to assist government-sponsored space exploration. There are just a handful of private sector companies like SpaceX engaged in developing full-on space tourism and exploration for profit, and less even that are publically traded.
But a few very familiar names see what Musk sees: a future where private space exploration is not just feasible, but profitable for investors.
Boeing Space Exploration
The Boeing Company (BA) has been involved in space travel since the beginnings of America’s space program some 50 years ago, but in the last few years they have amped up their space exploration considerably, and are arguably at the forefront of private sector space travel.
On July 23 the company unveiled the CST-100, their newest commercial spacecraft. What makes the CST-100 unique is that, unlike its previous projects done in conjunction with NASA, the CST-100 is wholly owned and operated by Boeing.
NASA still provides significant funding for the project, as the CST-100 will be used to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Boeing envisions that the CST-100 will be operational by 2015.
Richard Branson’s massive conglomerate Virgin has over 400 separate entities, including one devoted entirely to the burgeoning space tourism industry – Virgin Galactic. In April Virgin Galactic made major strides in developing a feasible privatized space program when the rocket motor they were developing got a spacecraft to successfully broke the sound barrier.
Virgin eyes democratizing the space tourism business to a significant degree. In the past, space tourism has been strictly in the domain of those who can afford to spend $20 million and up, while Branson aims to offer a seat on his SpaceShipTwo at the (relatively) low price of $250,000.
Planetary Resources, Inc.
Not all of the private sector is looking to make their money taking people from Earth to space. Some, like Planetary Resources, Inc. are hoping to take things from space back to Earth – specifically, valuable resources contained within asteroids.
Thought he plan is insanely ambitious, it could also be insanely profitable. One asteroid that passed by Earth in Feb. 2013 was estimated to contain $195 billion in water and metals.
Founded by Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis, Planetary Resources is developing humanless crafts that would mine asteroids of these valuable resources. Diamandis previously has significant experience in space tourism, sending seven super-wealthy clients into space with his tourism company Space Adventures.
While the duo’s plan is even riskier than Space Adventures, it has some pretty significant backers, most famously Google Inc. (GOOG) bigwigs Larry Page and Eric Schmidt. As Google continues looking to expand their scope, Planetary Resources can be expected to significantly ramp up their efforts, despite the numerous technological hurdles. Page in particular was instrumental behind spurring on the development of the fantastical Google Glass, and is famous for having a “healthy disrespect for the impossible.”
The company is expected to launch its first exploratory telescope within the next year.
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