Rockets, robots and a big week in the ‘Silicon Valley of Space’

Blue Origin's space capsule.

We’ve had fun this week following the story of Planetary Resources, the new startup that plans to launch robots into space to mine asteroids. Their news conference at Seattle’s Museum of Flight really did feel like the opening scene of a science fiction novel.

And in the process of developing the technology to retrieve natural resources from those giant rocks in the sky, they hope to make this area “the Silicon Valley of Space.”

Whether or not that actually happens, another piece of news this week reinforced the point that there are, in fact, lots of people around here trying to figure out new ways of getting stuff into orbit and beyond, to do a variety of interesting and groundbreaking things.

Blue Origin, based in Kent, Wash., south of Seattle, says it has completed a series of successful high-speed wind tunnel tests, helping to refine its spacecraft’s aerodynamics.

Blue Origin is creating a reusable rocket booster than can return to Earth with powered vertical landing.

The normally secretive Blue Origin was started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. It’s one of four American aerospace companies using funding from NASA to try to usher in a new era of commercial spaceflight — in part to transport astronauts to the International Space Station in the post-Space Shuttle era.

A big part of Blue Origin’s plan is to make rocket boosters reusable — and therefore more economical — by bringing them back to Earth with a vertical landing technique after they put a capsule into orbit. Blue Origin is looking to rebound from the explosion of one of its test spacecraft in the skies over Texas last year.

Another of the four companies in NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program is Boeing, which despite moving its headquarters to Chicago still has a sizable presence in Seattle in the form of its commercial airplanes division — representing lots of engineering experience that could help fuel the region’s role in the development of new technologies for space.

Meanwhile, separate from the NASA program, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems is aiming to launch rockets into orbit from the world’s biggest plane.

In short, these companies are drawing from the region’s roots in software and airplanes, and combining them to create an entirely new industry.

Planetary Resources' Arkyd asteroid hunter

But it’s not all rockets and spaceships around here. Don’t forget the space elevator folks, the people who want to send payloads into orbit on the backs of robots climbing carbon nanotubes into the sky — maybe even powered by energy-transmitting laser beams, also developed here.

So what could all of these space ventures mean for the economy?

Many trillions of dollars, apparently.

Apart from the echoes of sci-fi, what struck me most about the Planetary Resources news conference was just how much fun they were having. It was good to see people so excited about what’s ahead.

This was one of the best parts of the news conference, an impromptu aside from Eric Anderson, one the company’s principals:

 “This company is not about paper studies. This company is not about thinking and dreaming about mining asteroids. This company is about creating a space economy beyond the Earth. It’s about building real hardware. It’s about doing real things in space to move the needle forward. Not just talking about it. We’ve done enough of that. There’s plenty of talking. We’re about doing.

“We want to be held accountable for that. We want to generate interest all around the world and have the public follow us as we really work to do a very hard thing — which is to create robots that go into deep space and learn to remotely mine asteroids. There will be times when we fail. There will be times when we have to pick up the pieces and try again. But we’re going to do it.”

Trillions or not, it’s going to be pretty cool to have these people around.