Ticket to Orbit
Don't just sit there. Get out and see the world!
- By Eric Adams
- Air & Space magazine, September 2002
Illustration By Paul DiMare
ON THE MOON, WE'LL WEAR JET PACKS, drive fully enclosed lunar buggies, and explore vast craters. In orbit, we’ll dance in zero-G ballrooms and gaze placidly at Earth while sipping martinis from foil baggies.
This is the future we’ve been promised by scientists, entrepreneurs, and other space visionaries for the last 50 years, beginning with the futuristic Chesley Bonestell illustrations published in Collier’s magazine in the early 1950s—with accompanying articles written by no less an authority than Wernher von Braun. Although the government’s space program has focused on such serious matters as national prestige from the Apollo era up through the dawn of the space shuttle years and, now, the birth the International Space Station, there have been, along the way, scores of proposals and studies speculating on the future of recreational space travel. In 1998 NASA and the Space Transportation Association completed a study that predicted that suborbital flights and visits to private space stations would be highly profitable and are worthy of “serious national attention.” More recently, Kelly Space & Technology, a launch technology firm that is turning its attention toward passenger-carrying vehicles, conducted a market survey that forecast the demand for seats into space. Both studies suggest that tens of thousands of private citizens will spend enormous amounts of money to travel into space—from tens of thousands for suborbital flights to millions for orbital stays.
The recent flights of U.S. businessman Dennis Tito and South African Internet entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth, who both paid for rides into orbit aboard Russian launchers, week-long stays aboard the ISS, and hair-raising free-fall descents in Soviet-era capsules, seem to validate this research. Their tickets: $12 million to $14 million each—not the $20 million generally reported, according to Space Frontier Foundation president Rick Tumlinson, a space commercialization advocate who advised Tito during his negotiations and is familiar with Shuttleworth’s. Indeed, to many in this nascent field, these two flights signal, if not the true birth of space tourism, at least its first data points. “They have been absolutely critical in moving the concept of space tourism from something that many dismiss as fantasy to something that has made millions of dollars,” says John Carmack, founder of Armadillo Aerospace, which is developing a hydrogen-peroxide-powered suborbital vehicle. “An ‘existence proof’ beats all the plans and studies in the world,” he adds. Two other potential space tourists, Lance Bass of the band NSYNC and former NASA associate administrator Lori Garver, are vying for the next seats. Radio Shack has signed on to sponsor Bass’ flight, while Garver is still looking for sponsorship.
In addition to Carmack’s firm, numerous other companies—including Canadian Arrow and Bigelow Aerospace—are developing passenger-carrying vehicles for suborbital flights, which will provide roughly hour-long excursions with about two to five minutes of weightlessness. The $10 million X-Prize, created by space commercialization advocate Peter Diamandis, will be given to the first team to execute two such flights in a two-week period. Many of the competing companies see it as a prime incentive for launching their efforts to build a passenger-carrying space vehicle. “Winning the X-Prize is our major goal,” says Geoff Sheerin, whose company, Canadian Arrow, is building a rocket based on the relatively simple V-2 that the Germans developed during World War II. Sheerin adds that a potential payout of $10 million has allowed him to draw in corporate sponsorship and private investment. “Whether we win or lose, we expect to enter what we believe will be a very lucrative industry,” he says.
With individuals seeking expensive stays on the ISS and startups pursuing vehicles for the masses, there certainly seems to be momentum toward a viable space tourism industry. But going from a handful of multi-million-dollar flights aboard government-owned vehicles to a self-sustaining industry remains a significant leap. Some hard-charging entrepreneurs, foremost among them Eric Anderson, president of Fairfax, Virginia-based Space Adventures, which coordinates space-themed excursions (supersonic, high-altitude flights aboard Russian fighter jets, parabolic weightlessness-simulating flights in cargo aircraft) and helped arrange Shuttleworth’s flight, insist that orbital flights will be an affordable opportunity in only five to 10 years, and private mini space stations in 15. “There is a huge amount of public interest in space exploration,” says Anderson, citing his firm’s extensive market studies. “Dozens of people would pay up to $20 million for an orbital flight, and tens of thousands would pay $100,000 for a suborbital flight. As these businesses develop, we’ll reinvest that money into improving the technology. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Others wonder whether such factors as cost, risk, and sheer technical difficulty will push all of these dates back by decades. “I consider myself a realist,” says John Logsdon, director of the George Washington University Space Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., which has been studying the commercial potential for space for nearly 30 years. “I suspect that all this will happen at some point in the future, but I think the future is much farther away than some people want it to be.”
Of course, significant hurdles face the people trying to develop space tourism, and chief among them is financing. If you thought pop-up ads on the Internet were annoying, wait until you get to orbit. Corporate sponsorship, all agree, will be key to the success of commercial space travel. Lance Bass backer Radio Shack is also sponsoring an effort to launch a robotic rover to the moon. The rover, being developed by LunaCorp, will relay its explorations back home to audiences sitting in full-surround theaters mounted on motion-registering platforms. The company has been developing robotic technology with Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and is currently field-testing its rovers prior to a launch it hopes to pull off within the next two years.
Most space tourism prognosticators realize the financial benefits of corporate advertising and orbiting media “events.” But they too will be reluctant to participate in a substantive way until safety and reliability are proven. After all, Tumlinson says, “if you blow up Lance Bass, you’re going to have 200,000 teenage girls who are never going to buy your product.”
Investors in space tourism efforts simply haven’t stepped up to the plate. Bob Halterman, former director of the space travel and tourism division of the SA and now a consultant, says investors are going to have to shift their expectations. “There’s a lot of interest out there, but the challenge is getting investors to accept that this is a longer-term investment,” he says. “They usually expect a return on their investment by the end of the third year. That’s just not possible in any space endeavor. They have to be willing to wait five to 10 years.”
Logsdon argues that suborbital flights aren’t necessarily going to give people enough thrills for the money they’re paying, and they aren’t going to advance the industry substantially. “Space tourism is going to emerge from government development for government purposes, and then the adaptation of those new vehicles for private uses,” he says. “Getting people to orbit is very hard—there’s a big difference between suborbital and orbital flights in terms of materials and technology.”
Canadian Arrow’s Sheerin counters that the technology now being developed for suborbital flights isn’t being fully appreciated for its potential. Even though the weightlessness will be limited, he says, the thrill of the launch, the views, and the reentry and descent will be plenty thrilling. But more importantly, he argues, suborbital flights have enormous potential as a practical means of travel. “People are missing the obvious as far as suborbital flight is concerned,” he says. “It makes more sense for anyone wishing to travel from continent to continent, with 40-minute flight times to anywhere in the world. The only reason to go orbital is to stay in space or travel to other worlds. So for perhaps a few decades, the money earned by the high passenger count on intercontinental spaceflights will eclipse that earned by hotels in orbit.”
One factor apparently destined to benefit the private development of vehicles is the fact that the current satellite market is faltering. Space tourism may still be a market without an industry, but space technology is currently an industry without a market. “There were only 16 commercial launches last year,” says Diamandis (there were 30 in 2000). “The satellite market has dried up, thanks to fiber optics, better cell phone coverage, and longer-duration satellites. Many launch technology companies are turning toward tourism to market their services.” Kelly Space & Technology is one example. The San Bernadino, California-based company used to focus on satellite launches, but now it is concentrating on the development of the Eclipse Astroliner, a rocket-powered delta-wing aircraft intended for suborbital flights.
Once a company has found financing and a safe, reliable launch vehicle, it will still face the hurdle of government regulation. Diamandis points out that the industry is so new that the regulatory structure to allow for suborbital and orbital space tourism doesn’t yet exist, so regulatory issues will be argued as they become relevant. To help, he is proposing a plan, the “accredited passenger program,” which he hopes will eliminate the need for extensive, general-aviation-style certification of suborbital launch vehicles and generally circumvent the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation’s intrinsically risk-averse nature. The plan is similar to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s accredited investor program, in which investors who have demonstrated their expertise—as well as their wealth—are allowed to invest in companies that are not publicly traded. “It will allow passengers to go through training and testing, and it will be up to them to take the risk,” he says.
Will it be worth it? Mark Shuttleworth, speaking from Moscow after his flight in April, summed up his experiences nicely: “Anything that fundamentally challenges you is a good thing in the long run,” he said. “With trips like this, you’ll learn things you’ve always wanted to learn, and experience the magic of space. But from a sheer testosterone point of view, reentry was unbelievable—the ride of a lifetime.”
When everyone else will get such rides is anybody’s guess. For some reason, the predicted timeline has always been the same. In 1950, space travel promoters predicted that it would only be about 30 years before hotels were built in space. In 1970, it was also roughly 30 years. And now, 30 years later—when you average out the optimistic and the conservative estimates—it’s still 30 years away, long enough for everyone in the field to hedge their bets, yet close enough to seem to be “in our lifetime.”�