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Majors Tom, Dick and Harry
By William Kanapaux


Despite high-profile disasters and inevitable risk, private companies are competing to capitalize on the tourist potential of the final frontier

Fly me to the moon, or at least the nearest space station.

It would seem that our love affair with defying gravity has definitely leveled off. Infatuation with jet setting and the Right Stuff has given way to indifference and trepidation.

Over the last 18 months, we’ve seen hijackers armed with box cutters fly passenger jets into tall buildings, supersonic travel to Europe end with the pending demise of the Concorde, and a space shuttle break apart on reentry. NASA’s shuttle fleet, or what’s left of it, is more than 20 years old. A replacement isn’t expected for another 10 years. And construction of the International Space Station is woefully behind schedule.

Could it be possible that 18 months from now, the space industry’s fortunes will have taken a turn for the better? That a private company will have flown three people into space, not once but twice, using a reusable craft? That’s the prediction of the man who runs the X-Prize, a $10 million contest to see which private company will be the first to achieve suborbital flight twice in two weeks using the same craft.

The contest, started nearly 10 years ago by U.S. entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, uses a formula employed by the aviation world since the days of Charles Lindbergh. If you want innovation, announce a prize. Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in 1927 won $25,000, and the contest spurred $400,000 in development efforts. Already, 23 firms have entered the X-Prize contest, willing to invest time and money into being the first private outfit capable of sending passengers 62 miles above earth again and again.

Two weeks ago, the public got its first glimpse of the most promising entry to date when aircraft designer Burt Rutan unveiled a completely functional launch system by his company, Scaled Composites. Spectators in the Mojave Desert, including astronaut Buzz Aldrin, watched the White Knight in action. The futuristic jet is designed to carry a spacecraft known as SpaceShipOne to 50,000 feet. At that point, it will release the ship and spiral back to earth. The ship, meanwhile, will fire its thrusters and head for space.

The demonstration included a ground-level firing of the spaceship’s thrusters, and the ship itself will get its first test flight in a couple of months. The flight will be a modest one, a basic release and glide, but it is sure to generate a lot of interest.

Rutan is aware of the significance of his work in this 100th-anniversary year of the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk. Less than 10 years after that flight on Dec. 17, 1903, the number of pilots had grown to 1,000, Rutan says, and an industry was born. By contrast, the 42-year-old space program has practically stopped dead in its tracks.

Private enterprise might be just the thing to change that. Once a viable ship is ready for flight, all a successful company would need to do is tap into a person’s sense of adventure—and bank account.

Currently, it costs about $15 million for a trip into space, a price tag that puts the experience out of reach for all but the wealthiest. Even a boy-band pop star like Lance Bass got the heave-ho from a Russian rocket last year after he had trouble scraping together the funds to finance his trip.

But get the ticket down to $5 million, and about 60 people a year would probably take the ride. Offer a $50,000 ticket for a one-hour suborbital trip into space, and more than 15,000 people a year would pony up the cash.

At least that’s the assessment of Futron Corp in its latest space-tourism report. The consulting firm estimates that by 2021, space tourism will be a $1-billion-a-year business. While the report came out in October, the company says the Columbia disaster hasn’t had an impact on the urge to blast into space. People who want to ride a rocket expect it to be risky. Most respondents to Futron’s survey figured a space trip would be as risky as climbing Mount Everest. And of the two adventures, climbing Everest so far has proven to have a much higher death rate.

Another company, Space Adventures Ltd., reports that it has already sold 100 tickets at $98,000 each for trips into space that will begin as soon as a private launch vehicle is ready. According to the company, the Columbia disaster didn’t cause a single cancellation.

Of course human cargo will always be a sideshow to the space industry’s main attraction, filling earth’s orbit with communications and defense satellites. And the military is keeping a close eye on any technological innovations that come out of the X-Prize projects, intrigued by the potential of a flexible-use craft that could launch microsatellites and the like.

But with a $1 billion market to tap, civilian space flight seems inevitable.

MirCorp, the company that helped millionaire Dennis Tito hitch a ride on a Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station in 2001, has plans in the works for the world’s first space hotel. Tourists and researchers would be able to spend 14 days at the mini space station for $10 million to $15 million a pop. The hotel itself would cost about $100 million to build.

Passengers who could only afford a suborbital ticket would be able to buy one for about $10,000, MirCorp says. It estimates that the price would attract 10,000 passengers a year. While its projections are more cautious than Futron’s, that’s still a lot of fannies filling up space suits.

The preferred term for these space tourists, among those in the business, is citizen explorer. Most citizen explorers will experience the thrill of suborbital flight in vehicles that will reach speeds of 3,000 mph. (By contrast, the shuttle flies at 18,000 mph.) They will enjoy weightlessness, a coast-to-coast view of North America and a glimpse at the inky blackness of space for about five minutes before beginning the descent. The ride would be a quick one for sure. But the bragging rights—as a future credit-card commercial might say—would be priceless.

Orbital flight, on the other hand, will continue to be out of reach for the average citizen explorer. The technology needed to push a spacecraft into the realm of space where the big kids play is too expensive for private ventures to develop. Would-be astronauts who want the full space experience will have to go to MirCorp to buy a ride on a Soyuz or wait for NASA to decide whether it will sell tourist seats on its next generation of shuttles. But if the demand is there, no doubt some well-funded private company will begin work on an orbital launcher and perhaps another space hotel to dot the night sky.

Maybe by then the real space program will have been kick-started back into action, and we will finally catch up with the future that so many imagined when the space race began.

William Kanapaux is a freelance journalist living in Albany.


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