During the early days of the Internet, business reporters wandered the earth, pom-poms in hand, cheering for seemingly every investment idea on the planet. Oh, how the times have changed.
Take, for example, the current issue of Business 2.0, in which a team of reporters employ an altogether different approach — specifically, cheering for every investment idea not on this planet.
Under the headline, “The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Outer Space,” the editors of Business 2.0 offer this somber assessment of the space industry: “Prepare for Liftoff: The space business may be the most incredible new opportunity of your lifetime.”
In other words, Mars is the new Silicon Valley. From that startling premise, the magazine’s starry-eyed reporters at Business 2.0 embark on a back-to-the-future romp through the final frontier that will surely cause nostalgia for the go-go Internet prose of the ‘90s.
“A critical mass of entrepreneurs — some with familiar names like Bezos and Branson — have been backing space-related companies for years,” reports Business 2.0. “In the coming months, their efforts will reach blastoff stage (quite literally). Some of the markets they’re targeting … are ripe for competition. But most, such as suborbital tourism, space hotels, and solar satellites, don’t yet exist. All, however, have the potential to generate astronomical returns during the next decade.”
All of which left us astronomically skeptical. After all, the last time we checked in with the American space industry, it was still picking up the pieces of the Columbia Space Shuttle and hoping that the federal government’s skyrocketing deficits wouldn’t ground NASA’s lofty budget.
Then again, we’re willing to admit that until picking up Business 2.0, we hadn’t even heard about that future linchpin of space travel, known as the space elevator. That’s right: according to reporter Georgia Flight, the next big thing in space travel could be really, really, really tall elevators.
“The theory behind the elevator is simple,” writes Flight. “First proposed 111 years ago by a Russian scientist, it was popularized by Arthur C. Clarke in his award-winning 1978 novel, The Fountains of Paradise, and goes like this: Earth is constantly spinning. So if you attach a counterweight to it with a cable, and put it far enough away — 62,000 miles — the cable will be held taut by the force of the planet’s rotation, just as if you spun around while holding a ball on a string. And if you’ve got a taut cable, you’ve got the makings of an elevator.”
“A working elevator would reduce the cost of launching anything into space by roughly 98 percent,” adds Flight. “Business won’t have seen anything like it since the railroad.”
So who will become the first, overnight space-elevator tycoon, the first Bill Gates of the space-elevator age? Business 2.0 doesn’t hazard any guesses. But it does introduce us to a handful of A-list entrepreneurs who are currently tinkering with space ventures, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and Doom creator John Carmack.
That’s quite a roster of potential space entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny that whereas people who play in space are often super-rich, people don’t often get super-rich by playing in space.
Perhaps as a concession to this dour bit of realism, the editors include in their entrepreneurial space package a helpful sub-section entitled “How to Get Your Slice of NASA’s $400 Billion,” which is sort of an Idiot’s Guide to Space Graft. Although it lacks any practical advice on, say, how to hire a topflight space lobbyist, the section does offer this gem of investment advice: “Get to know procurement employees at your nearest NASA facility.”
Finally, Business 2.0 offers a round-up of other potentially lucrative space ventures, including orbital labs (market size: $10 billion a year by 2015), space tourism ($1 billion a year by 2023), asteroid mining ($10 billion a year by 2030), and the marketing of moon gas.
“NASA plans a return to the Moon by 2020, as a first step on the way to Mars,” notes the magazine. “Our lunar neighbor may also have about a million tons of helium-3 — a potential energy source that could be worth $7 billion a ton.”
Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.
Apparently not every business reporter has forgotten that all-important tradition of the ‘90s — promising readers and investors the moon.