A&S Interview: Esther Dyson
Handicapping the space tourism market.
- By Tony Reichhardt
- Air & Space magazine, September 2009
Courtesy Esther Dyson
The daughter of physicist and futurist Freeman Dyson, Esther Dyson made her mark in a different field entirely, as a savvy analyst and investor in Internet startups like Flickr and del.icio.us. Lately she has turned her attention to things that fly (Icon Aircraft, Airship Ventures) and launch (XCOR, Space Adventures), and has sponsored a series of “Flight School” workshops on the future of private aviation and space travel. Shortly after completing spaceflight training in Moscow last spring, she spoke with Senior Editor Tony Reichhardt about space tourism, from both a personal and business point of view.
Air & Space: When did your interest in space start?
Dyson: When I was a kid I figured I would go into space like everybody else by the time I was 40. I didn’t think I needed to do anything [to get there]. In the late 1990s it became increasingly obvious that it wasn’t going to happen like that, so I started getting interested in the privatization and commercialization of space, the way the Internet had been privatized and commercialized. Air taxis are kind of like PCs were then—the little guys in a world of big guys. So I started this conference called “ Flight School” and invested in Space Adventures and XCORP.
A & S: It’s striking how many people who made their money in the Internet world are now interested in space.
Dyson: One of the problems with this [space] industry is that it’s so capital intensive that the only players are billionaires right now. So they fund their own companies. There’s less of an open marketplace, and it’s more siloed, which is a pity. It’s also ironic, because it’s the software industry that should be secretive, because you can copy software. You could steal all of XCORP’s plans, and still couldn’t do what they’ve done without taking three to four years, because there’s so much black art to it.
Take [Amazon and Blue Origins founder] Jeff Bezos. He doesn’t want his shareholders to think he’s not full-time focused on Amazon. Elon Musk has the same issue between Tesla and SpaceX. So their businesses tend to be somewhat underexposed. What you really want is more of a market. With software, you can put something out and have people hack at it. With spacecraft, probably the best guy in this respect is John Carmack at Armadillo. He tests all the time. He builds and makes mistakes and improves. He’s doing the small-is-beautiful, scruffy startup. He’s another software guy.
To me the big frontiers now are genetics/medicine and space. In both cases it’s not just cool new technology, it’s restructuring the institutions.
A & S: On a more personal note, having just finished several months of training, why do you want to go into space yourself? Is it the same reason now that it was five months ago?
Dyson: It is. [The training] was kind of what I expected, which is positive. I didn’t do it with the presumption that I would go into space. I did it on the presumption that I wanted to learn. If you want to learn French, you need to go to France. And if you want to learn space, you need to be embedded with people who are doing it. You find out the stuff they don’t bother to talk about, because they take it for granted. For example, it didn’t occur to me how important doctors were to the whole enterprise, which of course makes sense. They’re sending human beings up into space. If you were sending pearls, you’d have a jeweler.
To be candid, the whole space program is basically just a giant plumbing-in-the-sky operation, plus some medical stuff. So you send these guys up, and what do they do? They do experiments on humans, and they fix the plumbing, and a little bit of construction on the outside.
Another thing I learned was how close the Russian-American relationship is. People talk about it, but you don’t really realize it. These American [space] guys speak Russian far better than the American business people I know in Russia. I’ve been going to Russia for 20 years, and to some extent this was an opportunity to get embedded in Russia. It wasn’t just space.
The Russians are justifiably proud of what they’ve achieved in space. The Russian public appreciates it more. Here I was, a foreign woman backup space tourist. In the scheme of things, I was at the very bottom of the totem pole. And I was on TV!
A & S: So is there genuine public interest in space in Russia? Is the space station on the news more than it is here?
Dyson: Oh yeah. If you go to the Pushkinskaya station and ask the next teenager you see “Who’s in space?” they probably won’t know. But your typical well-educated Russian is likely to know. I would talk about it to strangers, and they would know when the next flight was.
A & S: Now that you’ve trained, will you go out and raise the money for a flight to the space station?
Dyson: I wouldn’t invest $40 million in sending somebody [else] to space, so my best chance of going is to make $40 million on one of my IT investments. Or maybe 10 years from now XCOR will have a spacecraft that goes into orbit, as opposed to the suborbital things they’re doing now. My next actual flight is going to be on a test run of XCOR’s Lynx. I’m an investor, so I get to go. I don’t want to go too early, but I’m willing to take the risk. I’ve had a long and happy life already.
A & S: In terms of the market appeal of space tourism, which do you think will be more important, the view of Earth or weightlessness?
Dyson: It’s a really interesting question, and you see it pretty clearly in the different approaches of XCOR [Lynx] and Virgin Galactic. Virgin is much more focused on floating around in space. The Virgin experience is more luxury, whereas with Lynx it’s just you and the pilot, and you sit in front. It’s still not clear whether you even get out of the seat. The Virgin experience is to bring your family and pay up. Lynx is kind of like being a macho guy.
A & S: Some of the people who’ve gone to orbit don’t like to be called space tourists. They want to be called spaceflight participants.
Dyson: I think you should call them space tourists. It’s like “housewife” should not be a negative term, and neither should “space tourist.”
A & S: There’s a certain defensiveness, though. Maybe they feel pressure, like “I can’t just go up there and fool around. I better do something that sounds important.” But to play devil’s advocate, if it’s their $40 million, what’s wrong with turning weightless somersaults for a week?
Dyson: In general, I’m not a big fan of yachts. I’m kind of a usefulness fanatic myself. My mission, in fact, is to get all the astronauts and cosmonauts to get genotyped and do interesting stuff for healthcare. Most people with really good health records are people who are sick. The other people with really good health records are athletes—they probably take pretty good care of Tiger Woods—and astronauts and cosmonauts.
[Space researchers] are interested in what combination of factors makes you resistant to space sickness. And if you knew that, maybe you would know which people would be helped by Dramamine or something else. The Russians firmly believe you can be trained to overcome space sickness, and the Americans firmly believe you can’t. There must be some way to do proper research. If we are going to have a real commercial space industry, this would be useful stuff to know. I’m on the board of 23andMe [a personal genetics service], which is where that interest comes from.
A & S: Do you think there would be more millionaire space tourists lining up if it weren’t for the training requirements?
Dyson: It’s clear that the issue for most people is not the $30 million or $40 million cost, it’s the six months or a year away from work.
A & S: Could the training be condensed?
Dyson: Yes it could. But not into three weeks. First of all, you have to know the space station, not just the Soyuz. And as someone said, you may have a bit part in the opera, but you still need to know the whole score to do the chorus at the right time. Most of the training is for stuff that won’t happen and you hope never happens. But if it does happen, you’ve got to know which button to push. And you’re a risk to the other people if you’re not properly trained.
A & S: I’ve never heard about any resentment of the space tourists by Russian cosmonauts.
Dyson: First of all, they understand that you’re a fan. This is not some rich guy who doesn’t care about space. His money helps the Russian space program. I wasn’t there for [all the space tourists] getting trained, but the ones I do know—and I know all of them except Dennis [Tito]—are smart people who are serious, try to learn, and do their best to speak Russian. So as human beings, they’re not useless people.
The one thing I did notice is that there are a lot more female astronauts than female cosmonauts.
A & S: Is there any pressure on the Russians to change that?
Dyson: Probably from some women somewhere. I did my wilderness training, but to be candid, I’m a wimp. The two guys chopped down the trees, but the reality was that I wasn’t as good at chopping trees as they were, so they did it. And it was nice, they didn’t complain that I was a wimp. So I picked up the twigs, and tended the fire. I didn’t feel that I needed to prove myself. In a sense, they’re more realistic about that.
A & S: What do you think about Bigelow Aerospace and its plans for a private space station?
Dyson: I desperately hope he succeeds, because we all need someplace to go. I would love for him to have some competition, because that will make him better, it would give us more options, and it would make [space tourism] look real.
A & S: What do you look for in a new space company? Technical expertise?
Dyson: It’s much more holistic. In space, you need substantial chunks of money. This isn’t like launching a website for twenty thousand dollars because your brother-in-law is a good programmer. This requires heavy-duty capital investment. And I can’t play in that field. I just don’t have that much money. But if I did, and a guy who wanted to create a space station showed up, I would ask has he done anything else successfully? Do I like the guy? Does he or she seem to understand what they’re good at? Because it’s going to take a lot of things—management, inspiration, marketing, general credibility. If they’re competing with Bigelow, can they position themselves differently? Virgin Galactic and XCOR have market positions that are not the same. So I’d look for somebody that wasn’t redundant but had a clear idea of what they’re trying to do and the requisite technical expertise. Or knows where to get it.
A & S: This sounds harsh, but for all the talk about commercial space, not much has really happened.
Dyson: Well, it is happening. SpaceX is genuinely making progress. Things are happening. It looks very slow, especially when you watch businesses like Twitter explode.
A & S: When SpaceShipOne flew five years ago, did you think we’d be farther along in 2009?
Dyson: Probably, yes.
A & S: And you had to cancel your Flight School last year due to the slump in the economy.
Dyson: I think it will recover. You have a bunch of billionaires who haven’t yet spent their billions. I was just talking to someone who was on [Oracle CEO] Larry Ellison’s yacht. Larry has shown no interest in space, but there are other billionaires who have. And I think you have a bunch of guys in their thirties and forties now who will be billionaires in 10 years and will have time on their hands, either to be space tourists or to invest $500 million in a space hotel chain.
A & S: The argument has always been that private sector investors are too short-sighted, so government has to step in.
Dyson: Investment institutions are short-sighted, but I mean individual billionaires. Or, you’ve probably heard of the Mars Corporation idea. Millions of individual investors put up a couple of thousand dollars apiece into a corporation whose purpose is to inhabit Mars. With their investment, they get a lottery ticket to go to Mars. What you get is this non-nationally bound institution which is a constituency for Mars exploration. You don’t want it to be all done by governments.
A & S: What exactly is the long-term economic return from space? Helium 3? Asteroid mining?
Dyson: Asteroid mining and the Dyson Sphere [for producing space power]. It’s very far off, but it’s for real.
A & S: How about near-term? Just space tourism?
A & S: Against global catastrophe?
Dyson: Yeah. Terraforming Mars makes real sense. And science. The ability to grow pharmaceuticals more effectively.
A & S: Although the big pharmaceutical companies apparently don’t think so.
Dyson: They don’t en masse, because again, they’ve got these short-sighted investors. Maybe it sounds kind of lame, but I think 20 years from now we’ll be very glad we started doing this 30 years ago.
A & S: What do you think will be the turning point that makes space enterprise happen faster?
Dyson: Probably when Musk has some competition. Just like you had the Tandy Radio Shack versus the Atari.
A & S: How many times have you done weightlessness flights?
Dyson: Four times in the U.S. with Zero-G, where they try very hard not to get you sick, and twice in Russia, where they call it “provocation.” They twirl you around, trying to make you get sick. And it almost worked for me. I asked for the plastic bag, but I was able not to use it. I got close.
A & S: What drew you to Icon Aircraft enough to invest in it?
Dyson: Kirk [Hawkins], who’s an F-16 pilot and a visionary, is your American dream kind of guy who created himself. The good news is we’re going to be in production [with the ICON A5 light sport aircraft] when this [slump] should end. So they have an amazing book of advance orders. And mind you, it costs on the order of half a Virgin Galactic flight. Around $100,000. But you can keep it—it’s not just an experience.
It’s a sports thing, it’s not transportation. We’re a very rich country. We’re not quite as rich as we think we are, but there are a sizeable number of people for whom this is the ultimate outdoor experience.
A & S: Are you a pilot yourself?
Dyson: No, I don’t even have a driver’s license. I want to be the first person who can pilot a spacecraft but can’t pilot a car.