Will space tourism ever take off?

Virgin aims to take paying customers on trips in space within three years. Some say that’s an optimistic proposition. But Virgin isn’t the only one having a go…

Have any tourists entered space?

It’s early days. Only one company, Space Adventures – formed in 1997 and based in Arlington, Virginia – has actually sent paying customers into space. In 2002, they arranged for Dennis Tito, a former Nasa scientist turned businessman, and Mark Shuttleworth, a South African internet tycoon, to go on ten-day trips to the International Space Station, courtesy of spare seats on Russian rockets. It cost the two space tourists $20m each.

So why all the excitement?

In October, a small Californian company called Scales Composites – led by a renowned designer of experimental aircraft, Burt Rutan, and backed by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen – sent the same manned spaceship to an altitude of 100km (the limit of the earth’s atmosphere and thus the distance regarded by geophysicists as the start of ‘space’) twice in a two-week period, a feat that has defeated even Nasa. As owners of the first private company to manage this, Rutan and Allen won the $10m Ansari X prize – an open competition aimed at fostering private space travel. Their reusable craft, called SpaceShipOne, was launched at high altitude from a carrier aeroplane (‘White Knight’) and returned to a landing-strip in the Mojave desert in California.

What’s different about SpaceShipOne?

Apart from the novel launch method, its crucial innovation – which tackles head on the trickiest bit of manned space flight: getting the people back to earth – is its hinged wings. At the highest point in the ship’s flight, the wings hinge up, creating a feathering effect so that it then glides back down to Earth. In addition, thanks to an innovative design that uses synthetic rubber and nitrous oxide as fuel, the rocket booster is less likely to explode than conventional liquid fuel rocket engines.

So is this the start of mass space tourism?

It certainly brings commercial space flights a huge step closer. SpaceShipOne is ‘suborbital’ – meaning that it will ascend to 100km and then dip into space for a few minutes rather than orbit the Earth. Even so, it allows passengers to experience weightlessness and the extraordinary views of Earth  you get from space. As a result of its success, the once-fanciful idea of taking ordinary people into space for profit looks credible for the first time. Days before the prize-winning flights, Virgin founder Richard Branson announced a deal with Allen and Rutan. The aim? To provide regular suborbital flights into space within a few years. The new firm, Virgin Galactic, is to build a larger version of SpaceShipOne that will take between five and nine people into space for about $200,000 each.

How soon?

Virgin Galactic aims to have customers in space within three years, and although space-industry analysts think that’s optimistic, Branson means business. Virgin has already spent $20m licensing the SpaceShipOne technology from Rutan and Allen, and has a development budget of $100m. Their next big milestone is to finalise the construction contract early this year, after which work will begin on the exterior of the first SpaceShipTwo. There will also be a new ‘mother’ craft to launch the ships into space. The plan is to name the first two ships in the series VSS Enterprise and VSS Voyager, after vessels from TV drama Star Trek; Virgin says that VSS Enterprise should be ready for testing in 2007, with paying customers in space six months later.

Can space tourism possibly be safe?

To date, 18 of the 430 people who have flown into space have died as a result. The designer of SpaceShipOne, Burt Rutan, points out that “you can’t have an airline that kills 4% of its passengers” – and has vowed to make the Virgin flights “at least a hundred times” safer than space travel has been to date. Obviously, some degree of risk is inherent in space travel – even suborbital – a fact that America’s Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act 2004, just passed by Congress, acknowledges. The new law says that space tourists must be informed of the risks – but also that they must sign waivers of liability before flying. By providing a regulatory framework that lowers the risks of claims in the event of accidents, the new law should help  encourage more entrepreneurs to become involved. 

How big is the market?

Nobody knows. But all the market research to date suggests there’s more than enough interest to justify Virgin’s investment. About 13,000 people have already registered to pay a deposit and some want to pay the full $200,000 upfront to bag a place on one of the first flights. So overall, given that it only needs to fill 5,000 seats over the first five years to turn a profit, things look reasonably promising for Virgin.

Merryn

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