Jed McCaleb of Ripple starts a new company for private space stations: Quartz

A cryptocurrency pioneer is turning to a different frontier: Jed McCaleb, the original founder of Mt. Gox and one of the first developers of Ripple, has founded a new company called Vast that aims to build space stations with artificial gravity.

It’s a high-risk business plan, but as the International Space Station aims for retirement in 2030 and NASA is shifting its focus to the Moon and beyond, some companies are raising funds and simulating plans for private habitats in low-lying areas. – Earth’s orbit.

“We are at the beginning of this explosion of activity in orbit and in space in general,” McCaleb tells Quartz. “A lot of this will require people in the circuit to lower their prices for things we can’t really do remotely or robotics at this point. There will be demand for more stations. We will be among the first, if not the first “.

Building a mechanical workshop in space, where astronauts can perform science experiments, produce special goods, or even build other spacecraft is a tall order for a software entrepreneur who has never run an aerospace business before. Vast will compete with companies such as Axiom Space, which has its own module on the ISS and is flying on private astronaut missions; Nanoracks, a longtime NASA contractor with his own plans for the space station; and Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space company, which is developing a habitat called Orbital Reef.

How to build a space station

The first hurdle to any mission like this is cost: while Elon Musk’s SpaceX-built rockets are lowering the price of accessing orbit, launching substantial infrastructure is still not cheap. The ISS cost more than $ 100 billion, and although McCaleb thinks his station will be an order of magnitude cheaper, it is still likely to cost a billion dollars or more once development, testing, launch. , construction and operations will be considered.

What sets Vast apart so far is his dedication to creating a space station with artificial gravity. Existing plans for private space stations include habitats such as the ISS, where astronauts float in microgravity conditions. However, that environment can cause significant health problems for humans, including decreased vision and loss of bone density, particularly during long-term stays. Create artificial gravity, for example by rotating a habitat like in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, it will be a significant engineering challenge. Vast is not yet ready to share details on his concept for such a space station.

To put the Vast station into orbit, McCaleb is betting on SpaceX’s Starship, the next-generation rocket the company is currently developing. Although it has yet to make its first orbital flight, the vehicle is also at the center of NASA’s plans to bring humans back to the moon.

Like other space station aspirants, Vast hopes to attract a variety of customers: government astronauts from NASA and other space agencies, private astronauts on tourist trips, or companies attempting to develop space activities. While there are business models that take advantage of the unique properties of microgravity, from manufacturing drugs with microscopic crystals that cannot form in Earth’s gravity to creating goods like ultra-efficient fiber optic cable, it’s unclear how much demand there will eventually be for. the time spent 500 miles above the surface of the Earth.

Vast is mostly in recruiting mode right now, picking up former employees from companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. A key consultant is Hans Koenigsmann, a former top engineer from Musk’s company.

Silicon Valley turns its eyes to orbit

McCaleb, whose net worth is estimated in billions of dollars, wouldn’t say how much he invested in Vast. He plans to self-finance the business by launching his first habitat, but he wants it to be a sustainable business in the end. Vast’s future is not dependent on cryptocurrency markets, according to McCaleb, who says, “I still own a bunch of cryptocurrencies, but I know it’s volatile.”

McCaleb’s professional history began with the development of peer-to-peer networks and the creation of Mt. Gox, initially a trading platform for Magic: The Gathering cards that became one of the first major cryptocurrency exchanges. After selling it in 2011, it collapsed dramatically in 2014. McCaleb was also one of the main developers of Ripple, one of the first cryptocurrencies alternatives to bitcoin, and today he is involved with Stellar, a digital currency exchange protocol.

Now, it’s turning a long-standing personal interest in space exploration into a business. McCaleb, like Bezos and Musk, believes that the future of human civilization lies beyond the Earth. “As a civilization, we need a frontier, otherwise things become very zero, and that’s very bad for society,” he told Quartz. “This is something that has higher [return on investment] for humanity. For me personally, I want to do the most ambitious thing, given the resources I have ”.

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