The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Rocketplane illustration
SpaceShot plans to soon offer rides on suborbital spacecraft, such as the Rocketplane XP, to contest winners. (credit: Rocketplane Ltd.)

An interview with Sam Dinkin, CEO of SpaceShot

Recently I turned the tables on SpaceShot CEO Sam Dinkin, a regular columnist at The Space Review. Normally, he’s the one who gets to ask the questions, but he very kindly agreed to answer a few instead, about his soon-to-be-launched online skill game where players will compete to win a suborbital trip to space.

TSR: Tell us a bit about SpaceShot. What are the basics of how it will work?

Sam Dinkin: People will buy an entry that costs less than $5. They then compete in a non-dexterity skill game in order to win a flight on Rocketplane XP and get their astronaut wings. Rocketplane is an Oklahoma company that won millions of dollars in tax credits from Oklahoma after they raised $30 million. So they are finishing up a $40 million+ spacecraft development. Their spacecraft, Rocketplane XP, is a converted Learjet. They are planning to be first to market with test flights in 2006 and revenue flights in 2007. Check them out at Rocketplane, Inc.

TSR: What is your vision for SpaceShot? Imagine it’s five years from now, and commercial suborbital flights are a reality. Where do you imagine SpaceShot being at that time? How many winners would you like to have sent on suborbital flights?

Dinkin: Depending on the take-up rate, we could be very popular. Perhaps more popular than paid flights. If we determine that demand is there, we will offer orbital prizes and lunar orbital prizes. If we send one winner, I will consider that a success. If we send hundreds, they may have to build some more space ships to satisfy demand from us.

TSR: When did you first have the idea?

Dinkin: In October 2004, when Futron released a two-year-old study on the demand in the space tourism industry. They only considered demand from rich people without demand from games. We founded the company that month.

TSR: Has the current plan changed much from the original concept?

Dinkin: Yes. Here’s the original concept. We are an on-shore skill game now. But the essence of it is the same.

TSR: What can you tell us about the game?

Dinkin: It’s a non-dexterity skill game. More details will be available in the coming months.

Depending on the take-up rate, we could be very popular. Perhaps more popular than paid flights.

TSR: Will the game winners then go into a draw to win the grand spaceflight prize, or will the prize involve a tournament with one ultimate winner decided solely by how they play the game?

Dinkin: We will not have any sort of drawing.

TSR: Do you envision having more than one kind of game?

Dinkin: We will add games as demand and revenue justify expansion. We will give away as many spaceflights as people are willing to buy the entries for.

TSR: Will you be accepting participants from all around the globe, or just North America?

Dinkin: Wherever it’s legal.

TSR: Roughly when do you expect to be announcing the first competition? The first winner?

Dinkin: We are launching our first competition this autumn. The first winner as soon as someone wins.

TSR: I’d imagine you’ll have no trouble getting most of us in the space community signing up for a chance to fly, but how are you planning to market to the wider public?

Dinkin: We are not a multi-billion dollar corporation and will not be buying a Super Bowl ad. We will rely primarily on word of mouth and coolness. Skill games and space are both pretty sexy in their own right. Together, it should be irresistible to cover. The San Francisco Chronicle published an article about space property rights this week. While I am a champion of that, it’s not the caliber stuff of which dreams are made.

TSR: I suspect that, once you fly your first winner, SpaceShot will become pretty well unstoppable.

Dinkin: The industry may be unstoppable, but SpaceShot will need to mutate like the flu to stay current.

TSR: Roughly how many people will you need to sign up to cover the costs for the first spaceflight?

Dinkin: Spaceflights cost $192,500 + income tax. Ticket prices are less than $5. You do the math.

TSR: I guess that would put it somewhere around 60,000. Incidentally, where I live you don’t have to pay income tax on prize winnings, so I’d just like to say that I’d be happy to shoulder the burden of winning a suborbital flight to save SpaceShot some money.

Dinkin: Where’s zero-g, zero tax when you need it?

TSR: Speaking of zero-g, do you plan to have any smaller prizes, such as rides with Zero-G?

Dinkin: SpaceShot, Inc. is a sales agent of Zero-G.

TSR: What were the factors that led you to select Rocketplane as the suborbital spaceflight provider for SpaceShot?

Dinkin: They will be first to market and have an excellent team. I have personally interviewed the principals for The Space Review. They are also local here in America’s Heartland.

TSR: Would you consider buying flights on other suborbital vehicles, if and when they become available?

Dinkin: Rocketplane is stating that they are one to two years ahead of the competition. I hope you are asking me if my PC mail order company will stock both Apple and IBM PCs.

TSR: Basically I was wondering if you will consider sharing the business around when you ramp up. I wasn’t meaning to imply anything about Rocketplane.

Dinkin: Some day there may be a different operator at each of dozens of spaceports around the country.

TSR: Did you look at any other space enterprise business models before you decided on SpaceShot? What sort of pros and cons influenced your final choice?

NASA may find in 2018 that it is being welcomed by the Chinese, who have won a trip to the Moon on SpaceShot.

Dinkin: You can read about a space co-op, and other space business models in my column, but I never got as far as writing a business plan or founding a business around any of them. I have been involved in two other start-ups, one a patent laboratory like intven [Intellectual Ventures] and another, Optimal Auctions, Inc, but I love space.

TSR: Once SpaceShot is successfully established, do you have any plans percolating for a next step?

Dinkin: Yep.

TSR: If SpaceShot is sufficiently profitable, will you be taking a suborbital ride yourself?

Dinkin: I’ll take one whether it succeeds or not. I want to buy a one-way ticket to the Moon too.

TSR: Would you care to hazard a guess at when the first private expedition might touch down on the Moon?

Dinkin: No, but I would be happy to make a market for one on Intrade after I get some revenue customers.

Future and fiction

TSR: When did you first become interested in space? What was it that sparked that interest?

Dinkin: Here’s the story.

TSR: Why is space important to you? If you could go on national TV and tell John and Jane Public why they should care about care about space, what would you say?

Dinkin: Here’s what I said to Space Frontier Foundation. Let’s see if they induct me as an Advocate this weekend. [Sam has since let me know that he was indeed inducted - Rob]

TSR: If you could be President for a day, and make one space policy decision to advance humanity’s transformation out of the cradle of Earth and into a spacefaring society, what would it be?

Dinkin: Bush could post a $10-billion “American on Mars” prize.

TSR: What are your thoughts on the results of the Exploration Systems Architecture Study? Is NASA on the right track? What odds would you give that NASA will get back to the moon this way?

Dinkin: Here’s what I thought last year. Now, I am seeing how our way works by putting my money where my mouth is. NASA policy reminds me of my “Saturn 5, Going to the Moon” shirt from Johnson Space Center. NASA may find in 2018 that it is being welcomed by the Chinese, who have won a trip to the Moon on SpaceShot.

TSR: What about Will people be flying Falcon 9s to Bigelow LEO stations in ten years time?

Dinkin: Probably right after someone wins the America’s Space Prize, in 2011. I see becoming about as alt as alternative rock.

TSR: Yes, I’m starting to think that is not quite the right term. New space, perhaps? As you suggest, it’s not going to be “alt” for much longer. What effect do you think that will have on NASA? Do you think the agency will be able to transform and take advantage of alt/new space - or will they prove unable to change, and go the way of the dinosaurs?

Dinkin: You can do a lot with $16 billion a year if space access costs a tenth as much as now.

TSR: What do you imagine will be some of the first profitable new space businesses, outside of space tourism?

Dinkin: Here’s some related to tourism. Here’s some more general. My personal favorite is the yeoman Lunar solar farmer. Maybe someday it will be helium-3 cowboys.

I see becoming about as alt as alternative rock.

TSR: The idea behind SpaceShot reminds me a little of the Arthur C. Clarke book Islands in the Sky, where the main character wins a game show and claims as his prize a trip to an Earth-orbiting space station. Are you a fan of science fiction?

Dinkin: Heinlein. All of them. The books. The movies. At some point, I moved over to harder science fiction like Babylon 5. Then in May of 2004, I started writing science fact. Now, I am doing it.

TSR: What are your favorite books, and who are your favorite authors?

Dinkin: All of Julian Simon’s stuff. Especially Ultimate Resource 2. Read it if you think the world is running out of everything. Lois McMaster Bujold is my favorite science fiction author with C.J. Cherryh as a close second. It’s a pity space opera doesn’t sell quite so well these days. Hopefully, I will spark a new wave.

TSR: Some of the best fiction is the stuff that you can watch (or better yet help make) become non-fiction in your lifetime.

Dinkin: Either that or your story looks hopelessly dated way too quick.