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Race into space opening new horizons to private sector

10/01/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 11/30/2014 05:59 EST
Imagine the possibilities. Little or no regulation. An eroding government monopoly and billions of dollars in play. No, not some failed state. Space.

And with private entities like Elon Musk's SpaceX taking on an increasingly large role, many say the domino effect will mean more companies than ever before will be doing business in space.

Whether it's exploration, tourism or the now fairly simple task of putting and maintaining satellites in space, the private sector is stepping in and making big money.

Space X shows off 

At the International Astronautical Conference in Toronto this week, the convention floor has been busy with the business of space.

The convention floor is bustling with mock-ups. Everything from a mock-up of a spacecraft to an espresso machine that works in the vacuum of orbit.

There are companies selling satellites. Others selling digital imagery. Everyone from the Canadian Space Agency to Boeing has a booth.

But the most popular ticket in town is the SpaceX booth with a replica of the cockpit of its new Dragon2.

Just last month, Musk’s company was awarded a $2.6-billion US contract to use it to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. 

Jason Wallace of SpaceX says the company is fully private, turns a profit and already has a full manifest for the next couple years.

Making space accessible

"We're going to reduce the cost of launches and make space more accessible," he said.

And with that, Wallace says, there is a domino effect that extends to companies who just couldn't get their products into space before.

"It's really that cost factor. It's been so cost prohibitive traditionally. We're 40 to 60 million [dollars] less than our competition. So that in itself, right off the cap is a significant difference. So it's really opening up space to a lot of people that it's only been a dream previously, and now it's becoming a reality."

One Canadian company that's taking advantage of that is Vancouver based UrtheCast.

It's a digital imaging company. Think of Google Maps in nearly real-time video and you get the idea. 

CEO Wade Larson says the last decade has seen a remarkable transformation in the industry.

Appetite among investors

"It's driven by an appetite in the financial markets to move back into space and growing readiness on the part of governments to start procuring services and other applications from the private sector instead of doing it themselves. And I think there's a new entrepreneurialism in this industry where industries are being born, companies are emerging that want to tackle the commercialization of space in a way that's never happened before. So something big is going on here."

UrtheCast, which is funded entirely by venture capitalists, already has one camera on the space station. Later this week, Larson will announce details of a plan to install second-generation sensors.

According to its last quarterly results, UrtheCast is also set to finalize details of a contract worth some $65 million.  

In short, the business of space is booming.

'Let's go looking'

If the astronautical world has a hierarchy, Bill Nye "the Science Guy" is royalty.

He's been making science make sense for regular folks for years.

Nye says there are all kinds of ways to make a profit in space. Digital imagery, weather software and even tourism.

But he says the big, bold initiatives of exploration are still the domain of governments. "There isn't really a commercial model for exploring Pluto." 

The fastest rocket ever built was launched in 2006 and will fly by Pluto next summer.

"It cost the better part of  $2 billion dollars. It's hard to recoup that cash," he said.

But Nye says the private sector will take on more and more. He says no one really knows the possibilities of what will happen next.

"When people say what are you going to find when you're exploring, whether you're commercial or government... you don’t know what you're going to find. So let's go looking."

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