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Google, Tech Execs Accelerate Space Privatization

Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and ex-Microsoft exec Charles Simonyi are backing Planetary Resources, a new space exploration company to be unveiled April 24.
NASA's Blue Marble: 50 Years Of Earth Imagery
NASA's Blue Marble: 50 Years Of Earth Imagery
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Google CEO Larry Page and chairman Eric Schmidt, along with former Microsoft chief software architect Charles Simonyi, are investing in a new space exploration venture, according to a press release.

Details about the new company, Planetary Resources, will be revealed Tuesday at Seattle's Museum of Flight, but for now, the press release says only that the company "will overlay space exploration and natural resources to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP" as part of an entirely new industry. The company's website and social media accounts provide few additional details.

It's unclear whether Planetary Resources will be helped by an infusion of NASA money or assistance, but the space agency has worked with numerous private spaceflight ventures under Space Act Agreements that allow companies to use NASA facilities and expertise for their research and development needs.

[ NASA is building a new Web architecture. See NASA's New Web Plans Stress Open Source, Cloud. ]

With cuts in NASA's budget and the end of the space shuttle program at the agency, NASA will need to play a supporting role if it wants to keep itself involved in manned spaceflight. Both houses of Congress this week moved forward with NASA budget bills that included budget cuts, and NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver reportedly said this week that the cuts could pose threats to NASA's encouragement of private spaceflight.

As for the investors in Planetary Resources, this isn't Simonyi's first space rodeo. His interest in space began early in life, he told InformationWeek in a 2007 interview. Simonyi, who oversaw the development of the initial versions of Word and Excel while at Microsoft, has been in space twice, aboard Russian space capsules and the International Space Station.

Google director K. Ram Shriram is also an investor in the company. Other investors include filmmaker James Cameron and businessman H. Ross Perot's son Ross Perot Jr., who sits on Dell's board of directors. The company's co-founders and chairmen are private spaceflight entrepreneurs Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson, while aerospace engineer and former manager of NASA's Phoenix Mars mission Chris Lewicki will serve as the company's first president and chief engineer.

A number of wealthy tech execs, other than those involved in Planetary Resources, have also placed big bets on private space exploration over the years. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has been a long-time investor in private spaceflight. Allen and aerospace engineer Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne won the 2004 Ansari X Price as the first non-government craft to launch into space. In December, Allen and Rutan announced a new company, Stratolaunch Systems, that plans to build a mobile launch system and shuttle for orbital spaceflight.

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos is another billionaire tech executive with interests in spaceflight. Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000. The company has been largely secretive, but has built prototype craft, and has designs on both suborbital and orbital spaceflight. The company's orbital plans have seen infusions of cash from NASA.

Game programmer John Carmack, who is currently the technical director for iD Software, is another tech exec who has invested in spaceflight. And PayPal co-founder Elon Musk went on to start Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX).

In addition to funding spaceflight, tech execs have lined up to be astronauts. Google co-founder Sergey Brin placed a $5 million deposit on a seat on a private spaceship in 2008. Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth spent 10 days in a Russian space capsule and the International Space Station.

As federal agencies embrace devices and apps to meet employee demand, the White House seeks one comprehensive mobile strategy. Also in the new Going Mobile issue of InformationWeek Government: Find out how the National Security Agency is developing technologies to make commercial devices suitable for intelligence work. (Free registration required.)