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A crypto billionaire is joining the race for private space stations

·4 min read

A pioneer of cryptocurrency is turning to a different frontier: Jed McCaleb, the original founder of Mt. Gox and an early developer 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 because the International Space Station is aiming at retirement in 2030, and NASA is shifting its focus to the Moon and beyond, a handful of companies are raising money and mocking-up plans for private habitats in low-earth orbit.

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“We’re at the beginning of this explosion of activity in orbit and in space generally,” McCaleb tells Quartz. “A lot of that will require people in the loop to bring down the prices for things we really can’t do remotely or robotically at this point. There will be demand for multiple stations. We will be one of the first, if not the first.”

Building a machine shop in space, where astronauts could perform scientific experiments, manufacture 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 vie with firms like Axiom Space, which has its own module on the ISS and is flying private astronaut missions; Nanoracks, a longtime NASA contractor with its own space station plans; and Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space company, which is developing a habitat called Orbital Reef.

How to build a space station

The first obstacle for any mission like this is cost: While rockets built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX are driving down the price of access to orbit, launching substantial infrastructure still isn’t cheap. The ISS cost more than $100 billion, and while McCaleb thinks his station will be an order of magnitude cheaper, it’s still likely to cost a billion dollars or more, once development, testing, launch, construction, and operations are all factored in.

What sets Vast apart thus far is its dedication to creating a space station with artificial gravity. Existing plans for private space stations envision habitats like the ISS, where astronauts float about in microgravity. However, that environment can cause significant health problems for humans, including declining vision and loss of bone density, particularly over long-term stays. Creating artificial gravity, such as by rotating a habitat as in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, will be a significant engineering challenge. Vast isn’t yet ready to share the details on its concept for such a space station.

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

Like the 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 from companies attempting to develop space-based businesses. While business models exist that take advantage of the unique properties of microgravity, from making drugs with microscopic crystals that can’t form in Earth’s gravity to creating goods like ultra-efficient fiberoptic cable, it’s not clear how much demand there will ultimately be for time spent 500 miles above the surface of the Earth.

Vast is mainly in recruiting mode right now, scooping up former employees of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. One key adviser is Hans Koenigsmann, formerly the top engineer at Musk’s firm.

Silicon Valley turns its eyes to orbit

McCaleb, whose net worth is estimated in the billions of dollars, wouldn’t say how much he has invested in Vast. He plans to self-fund the business through the launch of its first habitat, but wants it to ultimately be a sustainable enterprise. Vast’s future is not dependent on the crypto markets, according to McCaleb, who says “I still own a bunch of crypto, but I know that it’s volatile.”

McCaleb’s professional history began with developing peer-to-peer networks and creating Mt. Gox, initially a trading platform for Magic: The Gathering cards that became one of the most prominent early crypto exchanges. After he sold it in 2011, it collapsed dramatically in 2014. McCaleb was also one of the lead developers of Ripple, an early crypto alternative to bitcoin, and today is involved with Stellar, a digital currency trading protocol.

Now, he is turning a longtime personal interest in space exploration into a business. McCaleb, like Bezos and Musk, believes that the future of human civilization is beyond the Earth. “As a civilization, we need a frontier, otherwise things get very zero sum, 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 biggest ambitious thing, given the resources I have.”