The founder of Mt. Gox and an early developer for Ripple has founded a new company called Vast that aims to build space stations with artificial gravity, paving the way toward human settlement beyond Earth's atmosphere.
This is a high-risk business plan because the International Space Station is aiming at retirement in 2030, and NASA is shifting its focus to the Moon. Now, there are those who want to take advantage and make their mark before it’s too late.
This means that a handful of companies are now raising money for private habitats near-Earth orbit - an exciting prospect considering how close these advancements will be.
"We're just getting started with this blast of activity in orbit and also in space in general. A lot of that will necessitate people in the loop to lower prices for things we can't do remotely or robotically at this time. Multiple stations will be in high demand. We will be one of, if not the, first," McCaleb tells Quartz.
The idea of building it in space is not as daunting for an entrepreneur who has never run an aerospace business before. Vast will compete with companies such as Axiom, which has its own module on the ISS and is piloting private astronaut missions; Nanoracks, a longtime NASA contractor that also has its own station plans; and Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos' tech company, which is constructing an Orbital Reef habitat.
How to Construct a Space Station
The first challenge for any mission such as this is costly; while rockets built by Elon Musk's SpaceX are lowering the cost of access to orbit, launching extensive infrastructure is still expensive.
The ISS costs more than $100 billion. While McCaleb believes his station will be an order of magnitude less expensive, it will still likely cost a billion dollars or more once advancement, testing, launch, construction, and procedures are considered.
Vast's commitment to building a space station with artificial gravity has distinguished it thus far. Current plans for this foresee habitats similar to the ISS, where astronauts float around in microgravity.
However, that environment can lead to significant health issues for humans, such as declining vision and bone density, especially when staying for an extended period of time.
Creating artificial gravity, such as in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey will be a significant engineering problem. Vast is not yet ready to share specifics about its concept for a space station.
The company is betting on SpaceX's Starship, the next-generation rocket that company has been developing for years. While it hasn't yet made its first orbital flight—it also serves as NASA’s hope to put humans back on the moon and send them around our solar system.
Like the other station contenders, Vast hopes to attract a diverse range of customers, including government astronauts from NASA and some other entities, private astronauts on vacation, and companies looking to establish space-based businesses.
While there are business models that take full advantage of microgravity's unique properties, such as making drugs with microscopic crystals that cannot form in Earth's gravity and producing goods such as ultra-efficient fiberoptic cable, it's unclear how much demand there will eventually be for time spent 500 miles above the Earth's surface.
The company is in recruitment mode, scooping up former employees from companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. One key adviser to the firm is Hans Koenigsmann- formerly Musk’s top engineer. He will join the team as they seek candidates for their upcoming launch wave.
McCaleb, whose fortune is estimated to be in the billions of dollars, has refused to reveal the amount of money he has invested in Vast. He intends to self-fund the company's first habitat, but he wants it to be a sustainable enterprise eventually.
According to him, Vast's future is not reliant on cryptocurrency markets. "I still own a bunch of cryptos, but I know it's volatile."
His professional history started with the evolution of peer-to-peer networks and the creation of Mt. Gox, which began as a trading platform for Magic: The Gathering cards and later evolved into one of the most prominent early crypto exchanges.
It crashed dramatically in 2014 after he sold it in 2011. He was also a key developer of Ripple, an early crypto alternative to bitcoin, and is now connected with Stellar, a digital currency trading protocol.
He is now turning a long-held personal interest in space adventure into a business. Like Bezos and Musk, McCaleb considers that human civilization's future lies beyond Earth's borders.
"As a civilization, we need to have a frontier; otherwise, things get really zero-sum, and that's extremely bad for society," he told Quartz. "This is something that has a greater return for humanity. I want to do the most ambitious thing I can with the resources I have."
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