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SpaceShipOne got the free-market-rocketry ball rolling. (Eric Long/NASM)

Go Ballistic

You can leave and reenter the atmosphere, feel the kick of a rocket, and see the curvature of Earth. Step right up and lay down your 200 grand.

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Airplane men sniff at the idea that passengers would actually choose 15 minutes crammed into a hatch and a kidney-thumping vertical return to earth, compared to their suspense-building two-hour ascent to the heavens, Learjet-like interiors, and the ease of alighting on wheels rolling down a runway.

The surest sign that the personal spaceflight revolutionaries are onto something may come from their favorite whipping boy, NASA. In a telling exhibition of if-you-can’t-lick-’em-join-’emism, Brant Sponberg, who manages a new NASA program to sponsor X-Prize–style derbies (see “Going Up?” p. 58) joined Diamandis on the Las Cruces airport ramp to announce two: a Suborbital Payload Challenge, which will demand a flight “much higher” than SpaceShipOne’s 100 kilometers, and one for analog lunar landers.

This momentum for private space companies will not long escape the attention of restless venture capitalists, guesses Aneel Pandey, one more cashed-out dot-com’er who has recycled part of his gains into XCOR. “People in the investment community go through stages,” he explains. “There was tech, then house-building. Eventually they will cycle into space exploration.”

That doesn’t mean, though, that anyone is close to ready with a reusable edge-of-space ship built to a commercial budget and offering the comfort and reliability expected by super A-list passengers. “There’s not one big thing left to be done, there’s a thousand little things,” comments XCOR’s Greason, who, Quarter Pounders on Mars aside, is one of the industry’s more thoughtful figures. “Most of all we need flights. If you’re going to say that your system fails less than one time in a thousand, you’d better have 1,000 flights under your belt.”

Potential patrons view space travel as less risky than skydiving or mountain climbing, according to the most frequently cited marketing study in the field, conducted by Virginia-based consultant Futron Corp. While rocketeers from every faction cite the 2002 Futron study as proving potential profitability, the group’s conclusions—based on surveying 450 Americans, each with a net worth in excess of $1 million—are in fact quite modest. Futron projected suborbital passenger volumes creeping up to 2,000 a year only six years after the first flights, which the group optimistically predicted would fly in 2006 and at a pre-Branson cost of $100,000. Those numbers might support two or three moderately profitable spacelines, but will hardly spin off the capital to ignite FAA booster Nield’s vision of “hundreds of manufacturers producing thousands of aircraft.”

And Futron did not even try to factor in the accident that everyone agrees is a certainty sooner or later, the neo-Challenger images of conflagration that will likely be the first serious attention most of the world pays to space tourism.

Peter Diamandis, a man not often left without a comment, says he knows exactly what he will say when the world press comes battering his door after the first fatalities. “I’ll tell them that space is the greatest frontier standing before humanity,” he intones. “That I’m thankful that thousands of people gave their lives to open the American West and other earlier frontiers. That if they don’t want to take risks to be a part of this, they had better stay out of it.”

But first, let’s have a launch.

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