Ticket to Orbit

Don’t just sit there. Get out and see the world!

You'll get lounges, athletic facilities, and a room with a view. Just don't open the windows. (Illustration By Paul DiMare)
Air & Space Magazine

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.”

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