Popular Mechanics

Private Space to the Government: « Get Out of the Way! »
Popular Mechanics

The future of space could soon belong to private companies—the soon-to-be retired space shuttle is being replaced by private launchers, space tourists are snapping pictures from the International Space Station, global positioning systems are ubiquitous, and entrepreneurs are building suborbital craft destined for use by paying customers. But the mood at the Space Business Forum, an annual gathering of investors and space geeks held in New York City, was impatience to get the feds out of the way so the private sector can attract investments and grow quicker. « I’d say the role of government [in the space industry] is too high, » says Heidi Wood, the senior equity analyst for aerospace for Morgan Stanley. « There are far too many hands on it. »

Complaints start with a familiar mantra of the stifling nature of bureaucracy and regulation. These add to financial risks, in turn driving away much-needed investor cash; companies with long startup times and no guaranteed return are not appealing to investors. « The markets don’t want to hear about negative cash flow right now, » says Andrew Africk, senior partner with the private equity firm Apollo Management LP.

Opportunities to come up with novel ways to manufacture products in space are being ignored because of the federal hoop-jumping. For example, the amount of regulation and government permission needed to conduct biotech research in space is « daunting, » says Thomas Pickens, president of Astrotech, which recently formed a spinoff company to use labs on the ISS to develop vaccines.