MOUNTAIN VIEW -- Inspired by explorers from Magellan to Neil Armstrong, attendees of Silicon Valley's first adult space camp are teaming up to navigate the next frontier: citizens in space.

Sure, humans have been blasting into outer space for half a century, but the privilege has thus far been reserved for highly trained astronauts. This weekend's Citizen Astronaut and Space Hacker Workshop of more than 100 space experts -- and aspiring space experts -- was focused on shooting the common man and his gadgets into orbit in hopes of going beyond the discoveries of NASA and other government programs.

"I grew up getting excited by astronauts, and I thought, 'how could I do this myself?' " said Manu Sharma, co-founder of Infinity Aerospace, a startup at Mountain View's Moffett Field, who spoke at the citizen science event. "Instinctively, we're all explorers. There's nothing left to explore on this planet."

Space customers

The event at the Hacker Dojo, appropriately across Highway 101 from NASA's Ames Research Center, featured speakers preaching way-out-there ideas such as colonizing Mars or building intergalactic gas stations to fuel rocket ships. And there were plans that entrepreneurs insist are only a year away, namely sending the first paying customer into space aboard a passenger rocket ship, at a cost of at least $95,000 per space tourist.


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The rock star organization of the event was XCOR Aerospace, a Southern California company competing with Virgin Galactic to send the first space tourist into flight. Virgin last week completed further testing on its spacecraft, breaking the sound barrier on Earth, while XCOR is still testing its engines.

Aboard XCOR's reusable Lynx vehicle, a professional astronaut would take one person at a time to view Earth from space for a few minutes before returning to solid ground. The Lynx looks like a plane with vertical wings that can zip down a 7,500-foot runway and then shoot straight up by burning a laser of fire behind it.

"This is imminent," said Khaki Rodway, XCOR's director of payload sales and operations. "Science fiction is becoming science reality."

But many of the attendees urged Silicon Valley engineers to develop the tools that can be launched into space with the capability of gathering pivotal data as an alternative way to leave their mark on intergalactic exploration. That's a particularly appealing option in a region packed with engineers and programmers who in many cases have the knowledge and passion to develop the instruments that are furthering space research. It's also a cheaper option than buying a ticket on a commercial space flight.

Not complete nerds

It may sound intimidating to anyone who hasn't earned a science degree from Stanford or spent an overnight hacking session at the Facebook campus, but there are plenty of ways to get involved -- from doing fashion design, working on astronauts' infamous pressure suits to imagining what kinds of food can be produced in space.

"We're trying to get away from being complete nerds," said Oana Marcu, principal investigator for the Carl Sagan Center at the SETI Institute in Mountain View. "Science is accessible. There's no reason for you not to do it."

Sean Casey, managing director of Silicon Valley Space Center, one of the organizers of the two-day, sold-out event, calls the movement to give the Average Joe access to the solar system "the democratization of space." And it didn't hurt that the event opened on May 4 -- unofficial Star Wars Day, honoring the movie that inspired many of today's scientists to delve into the space field.

"There's a lot of pent-up demand for access to space," Casey said, noting he hoped the region's venture capitalists could help fund some of the local startups pushing the burgeoning field. "Space entrepreneurship belongs to Silicon Valley."

Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.