The Madeleine Brand Show for May 10, 2012

Visiting the first Spacecraft Technology Expo

Stylish space-wear from Orbital Outfitters on display at the Spacecraft Technology Expo.

When there's a group of space enthusiasts at a convention center, they're usually focused on Star Trek or X-Files. But this week, the Los Angeles Convention Center hosted a different crowd of starry-eyed dreamers — space entrepreneurs — for the first-ever Spacecraft Technology Expo.

It's a gathering of business owners, engineers and investors looking to make a buck off leaving the earth's atmosphere. From tech titans like Boeing, Space X and XCor to nascent companies like Sentech Measurments and Orbital Outfitters, a large group of companies are vying to capitalize on the new industry ... if it exists.

Randy Fritz from Sentech Measurements was at the Expo. His company makes tools used to test how sturdy a machine is. In the past, they sold equipment to manufacturing plants or airplane companies. But the private space industry isn't a sure bet.

"Nothing's a sure bet. Even if space exploration was sure bet you never really know who is going to be the successful player. You know there is going to be a race but you don't know which horse is going to win," Fritz said.

According to Greg Autrey, who teaches economics at UC Irvine and studies the growth of the private space industry, most of these companies aren't making money. But he estimates that there's more than a billion dollars of investment in the field — mostly from big spenders like Elon Musk of Paypal and Virgin's Richard Branson.

"It is a significant amount of money and it is at the tipping point where more traditional capital is about to flow in. So I think it is over the next five years that we see this little boomlet happen," Autrey said.

Right now, a very large slice of the industry is based right in California's Mojave Desert, but "there are a lot of other states — particularly Florida, New Mexico, Virginia — that would like to snap this up from us. This is California's new business to either make or lose," according to Autrey.

Some states are already luring space companies with big tax breaks. And Florida, Virginia, New Mexico and Texas all have laws on the books to prevent businesses from being sued if they attempt a space flight and something goes wrong — like civilian deaths for example. It's obviously something every company tries to avoid, but without a guarantee limiting their liability, most companies can't even get proper insurance.

California doesn't have a law like this, and it's really important for companies like Space X, Virgin Galactic and XCor, all currently based in Calif.

One company at the Space Tech Expo is already considering leaving California if it doesn't pass a similar law. Calif. Senate Bill 2243, the Space Flight Liability and Immunity Act, is sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Knight — his district includes the Mojave Desert. But one aerospace law expert says the bill offers pretty weak protection compared to other states.

A lot will depend on whether there really is a market for things like space tourism, especially when it will cost tens of thousands of dollars for a seat on one of these early flights.


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