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.

SpaceShipOne got the free-market-rocketry ball rolling. (Eric Long/NASM)
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eff Greason, CEO of Mojave-based rocket builder XCOR, offers a prediction more concrete but, in its view of human progress, perhaps bleaker. “By the time NASA gets astronauts to Mars, McDonald’s will be there waiting for them,” he quips. Peter Diamandis is, of course, extravagant: “The greatest wealth ever known will be made when we open the space frontier—from its resources, real estate, transportation. The first trillionaires will come from space.”

But to earn the first few nickels on the way to those trillions, the space community is coalescing around entertaining mere millionaires yearning for a suborbital experience. This is a rocket-propelled journey that carves a sharp parabola peaking at an altitude of about 100 kilometers (62 miles), the so-called Karman line, accepted by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale as the atmosphere’s outer limit. From this height, passengers can drink in the epic view of Earth that has so far been limited to government-sanctioned astronauts, and experience microgravity—for the four to five minutes, anyway, that their vehicle takes to come over the top of its arc and hurtle back into Earth’s gravitational field.

Unlike orbital rockets, which accelerate to Mach 25, the parabolic trajectory will require only a fraction of that velocity, no more than three to four times the speed of sound. People of average health and fitness can experience a brush with the infinite. “It’s amazing how out of shape you can be” and still qualify for spaceflight, says Andrew Case, a former University of Maryland physicist who now heads a fledgling trade organization called the Suborbital Institute. “If you’re healthy enough to do white-water rafting, you’re healthy enough for spaceflight.”

Average income is another matter entirely. When it unfurled the business, Virgin Galactic set the $200,000 benchmark—for a ride that, to be fair, will take about two hours altogether plus a week or two of “training” beforehand. Like almost everything else about space tourism, the number at this point is speculative and subject to hot debate. “The going number before Virgin came in was $100,000,” snipes Chuck Lauer, director of business development for Rocketplane, a rival backed by Midwestern billboard entrepreneur George French and the state of Oklahoma. “But if Richard Branson wants to come put $100,000 extra in my pocket, I’ll take it.” Everyone’s business plan, though, depends on “early adapters,” the first consumers to buy a new technology. Early adapters don’t worry about cost, keeping the industry going for a few years at least.

The second revolution-wide consensus—or depending on who is talking, point of pride—is that some of these highest-tax-bracket cosmoneers will get blown up and die a horrible death. Even the Federal Aviation Administration can barely curb its enthusiasm about its inability to guarantee space tourists’ safety. “It was more than 20 years after the Wright brothers that the Civil Aeronautics Board was created, and I wonder whether the progress in aviation could have taken place if it had been regulated before that,” reflects George Nield, deputy associate administrator for commercial space transportation, a post created six years ago to monitor commercial space ventures. “We are working on an informed-consent principle that recognizes space travel is inherently risky. That’s what we do in this country. We allow people to take risks.”

The only sour note, significantly, is sounded by someone who actually has risked his life in space: astronaut Steve Robinson. “It’s really expensive to be safe, and when you’re trying to make a profit, that’s one area that you’re going to look at to make cuts,” he said, surveying the mock-ups and scale models on display at Las Cruces. “Some of these companies seem to understand the engineering challenges involved in spaceflight, and some don’t.”

When it comes to how to deliver the suborbital experience, the unanimous industry machismo is happily replaced by a cacophony of competing designs and modi operandi: from the lean futurist lines of SpaceShipOne, beside a facsimile of which Virgin Galactic vice president Steven Attenborough makes a two-minute appearance with the air of a purebred among mutts, to the workhorse steel cylinder of Canadian Arrow’s proudly reincarnated V-2.

Some rocketeers envision mid-air launches from carrier aircraft, like the White Knight that toted SpaceShipOne. Others are planning on launch pads at New Mexico’s spaceport-to-be, for which the state has just committed $250 million and is concluding long-running negotiations with two old-line ranching families that had grazing leases on the site. Others prefer barges on the Great Lakes. The unofficial X-resourcefulness prize goes by general acclaim to the Toron-to-based da Vinci project. Their ungainly cosmic prototype is slated to dangle until 70,000 feet under the harness of a yet-to-be-built world’s biggest helium balloon, then fire its engines at that altitude. While competitors are paid by stargazing magnates from other fields, da Vinci has survived so far on less than $2 million and thousands of volunteer hours from patriotic Canadian engineers.

But the basic dichotomy in the nascent space tourism business comes down to airplane guys vs. rocket guys. (Few women have yet been drawn to the industry, save as PR operatives on a degeekifying mission.)

The suborbital rocket experience will be an express trip: 15 minutes or so from liftoff to touchdown, but filled (would-be purveyors promise) with enough noise, adrenaline, and wonder to last a lifetime. “This way you’ll feel what Alan Shepard or Gus Grissom felt,” enthuses Starchaser’s Steve Bennett. “You’ve got a spacesuit on, you’re strapped in, these huge engines roaring under your back. This isn’t some kind of flying tour bus.”

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