Final Frontier: Q&A With Michael Blum

Editor's note: Hedgeye President Michael Blum has been aboard the Hedgeye train since Day One. Actually, before that. Michael was college roommates with Hedgeye Founder and CEO Keith McCullough during their freshman year at Yale University. He speaks below about about one of his greatest passions in life - space travel.


Final Frontier: Q&A With Michael Blum - blum

You’re the keynote speaker tomorrow at the Community Partnership Luncheon tomorrow hosted by the International Symposium for Personal & Commercial Spaceflight. What exactly is this and what do you plan to discuss?


Well, following the 2004 Ansari X-Prize win by Mojave, CA based Scaled Composites (today part of Northrop Grumman (NOC)) Richard Branson set up Virgin Galactic to offer sub-orbital space tourism flight. Branson and then-Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson teamed up to develop Spaceport America, just west of the White Sands Missile Range. The location is ideal due to its weather and landscape conditions and the availability of unlimited airspace for continuous rocket launch operations.


SpacePort America cost $209M to build and was funded by the State of New Mexico and local county sources, including tax bond proceeds.


The local community has often been very skeptical of this project to which development delays at Virgin Galactic have contributed. But light is at the end of the tunnel with operational flights out of Spaceport America now being targeted by late 2014.


While Southern New Mexico has a rich cultural history dating back many thousands of years, it does not have a lot of tourism related infrastructure. With the Spaceport built and operations on the horizon, the local community must now start to develop hospitality and entertainment concepts needed to support the travelers who will soon be pouring into the area.


You mentioned Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic. Who are some of the other big players in the game?


The commercial space industry has only recently had a chance to begin its “golden age” as a result of the budget constraints facing NASA’s long term ability to serve the US Government’s needs both in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and on scientific exploration missions into the far reaches of our solar system. This has led to private investment and entrepreneurial competition in an industry previously controlled by governments.


Elon Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) in 2002 after selling PayPal to eBay largely because NASA had no active plans to go to Mars. With funding from Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, Rothenberg Ventures and Draper Fisher Jurvetson among others (including NASA via the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services and the Commercial Crew Development programs), Musk today controls the only reusable spacecraft capable of servicing the International Space Station. And Musk has ambitions to make manned travel to Mars commercially viable.


Amazon’s Jeff Bezos started highly secretive Blue Origin in 2000. Since his high school days, Bezos has been fascinated with the prospects of establishing colonies in space. Blue Origin is in the process of developing both suborbital and orbital launch vehicles and has developed a family of rocket engines to support such missions.


Las Vegas-based real estate entrepreneur Robert Bigelow founded Bigelow Aerospace in 1998 to develop space habitats – commercially operated space stations. He initially licensed an expandable space module technology that NASA had discarded. After many years of refining various components, two test modules were launched into Orbit in 2006/2007 where they currently remain. Bigelow’s development is ahead of current launch capacity and he awaits both availability of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Boeing’s CST-100 (Crew Space Transportation) spacecraft to launch his space stations and deliver humans to them.


If you had a crystal ball, and were able to predict the future, what are some of the more intriguing developments we might see in our lifetime?


Great question.  My fellow Virgin Galactic Future Astronauts PJ King, Edwin Sahakian and I are Executive Producing a film with the National Space Society on this very topic!


The real breakthrough has been a 95%-plus reduction in launch costs to LEO following the mothballing of the Space Shuttle. Entrepreneurial spirit and competition has effectively solved the problem of the first 100 miles – overcoming Earth’s gravity and carrying cargo altitude.This is leading to a revolution as big as the computer revolution the 20th Century.


As a result, we will see a far larger number of satellite launches leading to massive cost reductions in satellite manufacturing. We will start to see LEO constellation networks rather than geo-synchronous orbit satellites – again leading to massive savings. We will be able to cost effectively test the viability of space based solar power systems. There will be an enormous increase in environmental data collection and a whole new understand of the upper atmosphere.


The ability to cheaply launch components into LEO for assembly there will allow us to develop staging areas as jumping off points to longer missions – be that manned return to the Moon, Mars or beyond such as visits to Asteroids. And we will likely see this within a decade. On the planetary science front, deep space missions will no longer be billion dollar enterprises.


I think we will see SpaceX send a scientific mission to mars within the next decade with humans following on a SpaceX vehicle shortly thereafter. Elon may also be able to get the Mars Cycler going which would allow for up to 80,000 people to travel to Mars every year.


We will find applications of this new technology that we are not even yet dreaming of.


On a more personal note, what was the genesis of your interest in Space?


My interest in space began when I was 5 or 6 years old, sitting in my 1st grade classroom and watching the first Space Shuttle launch. I knew I wanted to be an astronaut then.


In 2006, I was able to buy my ticket on Virgin Galactic and in 2010 I also bought a ticket on competitor Space Expedition Corporation. I speak to university students around the world on entrepreneurship in commercial space, have spoken at new space conferences and am the author of the essay titled A Tourist’s Perspective on Space published in the book Space Commerce: The Inside Story By The People Who Are Making it Happen.


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