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)
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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.”�

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