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Space Tourism: Will Go Far, Or Fizzle Out?

Space Tourism: Will Go Far, Or Fizzle Out?

There are six spaceports in the United States alone and others around the globe. Spaceport America, located in Upham, New Mexico, is the world’s first commercial spaceport, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic the world’s first self-proclaimed “spaceline” and the facility’s anchor tenant.

Bigelow Aerospace, a Nevada-based aerospace engineering company, recently approached the Canadian government about building a facility in their country. Orbital facilities are being marketed to governments as an alternative to the International Space Station, one reason Bigelow has approached the Canadian government about a ground facility.

When it comes to space tourism, it turns out there are several companies in varying degrees of planning and development of spaceships and spaceports. Other companies are selling and marketing tickets to go to space.

“I think the future of space tourism is going to depend on a lot of different factors, and how successful these companies are at launching things,” said Douglas Messier, owner of the blogsite Parabolicarc.com.

Messier’s site focuses on space commercialization and tourism. He has a master’s degree in science, technology and public policy from The George Washington University. He studied at the university’s Space Policy Institute and graduated from the International Space University. (He also holds a bachelor’s in journalism from Rider University.) The Institute is a place where scholars, policy analysts, practitioners and students come together to study and evaluate the future of space.

There are hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into the space tourism industry, but the question that seems to persist is whether space tourism is for real. Messier suggests it may be, as long as certain components fall into place. The biggest is money and right now companies like Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace and Armadillo Aerospace are the current frontrunners in the effort to send “citizen astronauts” into space.

The two companies, especially Branson’s Virgin Galactic, are fueled by lifelong visions and a belief there is both the money and the interest to fuel the industry. Then there is what could be called the “X” factor, a type of manifest destiny-based momentum that is carrying forward our natural compulsion as humans to gravitate beyond what we already know. That gravitation has now become a race.

Companies like Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace, Blue Origin Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace, Excalibur Almaz, Bigelow Aerospace and, just recently, Boeing are all waist deep in a mini space race, each eagerly positioning themselves to become the first company to begin sending spaceships filled with private tourists on suborbital and, eventually, orbital flights.

Virgin Galactic seems best positioned in terms of suborbital flights, having performed several successful test flights of its SpaceShip Two.

“Virgin has a lot of money and prestige behind it,” Messier told NewSpace Magazine. “They are, kind of, the Goliath of the industry right now. They just completed another test flight. It’ll be interesting to see how fast they can move with the aggressive schedule they have. One question is their engine: they still need to do a lot of testing.”

Which brings up an entirely new subject – safety.

But, if Virgin Galactic is Goliath, XCOR and Armadillo are the “Davids” of the story.

“XCOR is a small, scrappy company,” said Messier. “XCOR is the expert at engines and I think they have a workable design and their funding now seems solid. They are looking at initial test flights by the end of 2011. There seems to be a lot of people interested in doing this (visiting space). The issue will be how good are the flights, reliability and a lot of other factors. But I think there is a market. Companies are also looking to the suborbital experiment market as part of their revenue stream”

There is also a sizable market developing for orbital flights. The Russians have been sending the very wealthy to the ISS (International Space Station) for years.

“It is a very interesting market,” said Messier, a communications expert who has spent the last 10 years involved in entrepreneurial start-ups. “The price has gone up to about $45 million for a 10-day to two-week mission. The Russians have had a monopoly, so the prices haven’t gone down.”

That will change once private companies catch up, finding viable, safe and cost-effective avenues for putting paying customers into orbit. One of those avenues includes buying technology from the Russians themselves. At least one company, Excalibur Almaz has already don that. The company, based on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, has purchased Soviet-era military space station hardware it is refurbishing.

Former Excalibur employee and current Boise State University Professor Clay Morgan has intimated the company may intend to eventually send tourists around the moon and back.

Other ventures currently in the works include the Bigelow-Boeing CST-100 crew module – they have a marketing deal with Space Adventures – and SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. Orbital Sciences Corporation may also convert its Cygnus freighter for human missions.

“These vehicles are being designed to serve multiple facilities (ISS, Bigelow space stations) and fly on multiple rockets,” Messier said.

These ventures, and others, are vying for funding under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program.

“The missing link is a commercial transport to low-Earth orbit,” Messier added. “It’s only about 250 miles up, but right now governments have a monopoly on it. Break that stranglehold, and you could see an explosion of commercial development in low-Earth orbit. In ten years, the space industry could be totally unrecognizable.

In some ways, space tourism has no choice but to succeed and prosper, especially considering the fact the current Presidential administration has nixed NASA’s plans to return to the moon. NASA is now relying on the private sector to continue development efforts from the Earth to the moon while it tries to adjust to a new mission mandate.

NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program, as defined on http://www.nasa.gov, aims to stimulate efforts in the private sector to develop and demonstrate human spaceflight capabilities. The efforts are intended to foster entrepreneurial activity leading to job growth in engineering, analysis, design, and research, and to economic growth as capabilities for new markets are created. The Program intends to solicit proposals from all interested U.S. industry participants to mature the design and development of commercial crew spaceflight concepts and associated enabling technologies and capabilities. In 2009, NASA used its Space Act authority to invest up to $50 million dollars in multiple competitively awarded, funded agreements. This activity is referred to as Commercial Crew Development, or CCDev, and several companies have since been taking advantage.

“It’s a complicated issue. The previous vision of NASA was focused on the moon and it was not very realistic in its implementation and funding,” Messier said, referring to NASA’s now cancelled Constellation program. “The vehicles they were building were too expensive, weren’t going to get us to the moon very fast and there would be so much money going into a lunar base, we wouldn’t have enough money left to do anything with it. Hence, the private space industry.”

With the space tourism industry about to take off, literally, the economic effects, according to Messier, could be significant, with thousands of new jobs and careers made available to the public.

“The impact of building space stations and rockets could have a major impact on the market,” he said. “Bigalow has talked about 20 or more flights per year to sustain its space stations.”

But will the price for a trip stay the same, or will it drop? Messier says prices should fall. Ticket prices between companies vary, even now, roughly 16 months before Virgin Galactic launches its first flight. Virgin is selling tickets for $200,000 and XCOR is about $95,000, with a different flight model. Armadillo is selling its seats at about $102,000.

“Virgin Galactic is talking about radically bringing down costs to about $50,000 once commercial operations begin and the market is proven,” Messier added.

But what is it about space that causes people to throw down such cold, hard cash for a few minutes above the Earth? Does being in space change the average person’s perspective on what it means to be a human on this planet? Some say it does, but Messier, who has never been to space, isn’t sure.

“I don’t really know. That will be interesting,” he said. “Virgin has made the argument that by getting people up there, it will change our view on how fragile the earth is and things like that. And, it’s probably true. It’s going to make people put their money into either saving the rain forest or going back. Virgin would love to have repeat customers, so it’s in the company’s interest to have people come back again and again.”

Decades of waiting

Messier is part of a growing number of people keeping a close eye on an industry that was all but unfathomable to most people some 40 years ago, save for a relatively small group that possessed enough vision to see past the present and into the future of commercial space flight.

Many of those were youth caught in the mesmerizing current of wonder and excitement generated by the space race of the 1960’s. They have been quietly biding their time, waiting for their chance to climb aboard a spaceship bound for the outer reaches of Earth’s atmosphere.

The wait ended for a handful of hopefuls, beginning in 2001, when Dennis Tito hitched a ride with the Russians to the International Space Station at a cost of $20 million. A few more tourists followed in Tito’s footsteps over roughly a 10-year period.

But things have changed: the fact that millions of dollars are being spent on constructing spaceports all over the world is a very tangible sign this space tourism thing truly is for real.

Going to space is not cheap and if the money that is being poured into space tourism is any indication of the industry’s future, the idea of people traveling to space will one day be as common as an overseas flight to Paris.

Log on to http://www.newspacemagazine.com for more on space tourism and travel.

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