Mavericks of the
private space industry.
BY CHARLES PLATT
FINAL FRONTIERSMEN: (Left to right) Dave Masten, John Carmack, Tim Pickens, Tim Bendel, Paul J. Breed,
and Jeff Greason.
It’s the best of times and the worst of times for space enthusiasts.
Following the imminent retirement of the space
shuttle, the United States will lose its manned
orbital capability. President Obama cancelled the
Constellation program, which was supposed to take
us back to the moon. An astonishing $9 billion was
spent on Constellation, and canceling it will cost
another $2.5 billion.
Yet amid this gloom and doom, a rapidly shifting
mosaic of startups is maturing, hoping to get into
orbit with a tiny fraction of what NASA has spent.
Some quick case histories:
» Maverick Alabama rocket enthusiast Tim Pickens
founded Orion Propulsion in 2004. In 2009 he sold
the company to Dynetics, a science and technology
company employing more than 1,300 people and
developing microsatellite capability. He’s now their
commercial space advisor and chief propulsion
» Six years ago, former Lockheed Martin engineer
Tim Bendel sold his house outside Denver, bought
a decommissioned Atlas missile silo in Wyoming,
and moved into it with his wife and business
partners. Their company Frontier Astronautics
offers rocket engines, guidance systems, propellant,
and a safe testing environment to other startups.
» Former Cisco software engineer Dave Masten
started Masten Space Systems in the Bay Area
in 2004 and later moved it to a 60-year-old
wooden hangar at Mojave Air and Space Port in
the California desert. In 2009, his tiny team of
enthusiasts demonstrated an unmanned vehicle
that launched vertically, moved laterally, and landed
vertically. They took home more than $1 million
as winners of the X Prize Lunar Lander Challenge
sponsored by NASA and Northrop Grumman.
» Small businessman Paul T. Breed and his son,
Paul A., formed their company Unreasonable
Rocket in 2006, hoping to win the Lunar Lander
Challenge. They didn’t succeed, but built and flew
three vertical-takeoff vehicles, built and fired nine
types of rocket motors, and built an autopiloted
helicopter to test their control software.
» Armadillo Aerospace was founded in 2000 by
John Carmack, technical director of Id Software,
famous for its Doom and Quake computer games.
He hooked up with members of the Dallas Area
Rocket Society and pursues space as a part-time
occupation. Armadillo won the $500,000 second
prize in the 2009 Lunar Lander Challenge.
These startups face significant barriers, including scarce venture capital, tightening regulatory
controls, environmental issues, and anxiety about
safety. “This country is losing the ability to understand that risk-taking is wonderful,” laments Shariar
“Jack” Ghalam of Frontier Astronautics. “If you
want to go into space, you’re going to lose lives and
hardware. If you’re not willing to face that, just stay
62 Make: Volume 24