Sir Richard Branson is betting millions that the day of suborbital passenger flight is fast approaching. Image
Personal flight into space is not yet a cash-and-carry business. However, things are looking up: The privately-built and financed SpaceShipOne has flown. Passenger-carrying suborbital spaceships are being built. The pulse of public interest in rocketing high above Earth is being felt. And even ticket prices are set.
Nevertheless, just how fast the lines will form, and what type of person is ready and willing to toss down cash to become a payload headed for space will require a bit of crystal ball, wait-and-see watching.
And according to a businesswoman, there are already lessons learned that if not heeded might hold back the sky-high hopes of space tourism operators.
Exceed expectations on all levels
"For a long time, I resisted attending the space conferences and sharing my knowledge of adventure travelers," Jane Reifert, President of Incredible Adventures, Inc. told SPACE.com. "But I now worry that if I don't speak up, expensive mistakes will be made that will grind the space tourism industry to a halt before it gets off the ground."
Since 1993, the Sarasota, Florida-based group has offered high-performance jet rides, high-altitude skydiving, and other daring but doable venues for patrons. They have also added suborbital flights to their offerings, partnering with Rocketplane Ltd. of Oklahoma City to supply ticket-in-hand consumers a roundtrip flight between a spaceport in Oklahoma and the edge of space.
One thing that Reifert is emphatic about is get to know your client base.
Reifert said that one worry she has is that a lot of great engineers out there working on the first generation of space tourism vehicles "simply don't have a clue" regarding their passengers. After all, a good architect wouldn't design a house without first considering the wants and needs of the people who will live inside, she added.
"I fear aerospace engineers are so wrapped up in determining engine specifications and flight trajectories that they haven't stopped to consider who will ride in their vehicles," Reifert said.
Simply keeping the passengers alive isn't enough, Reifert added. "To gain continued public support for civilian space travel, the initial vehicles have to exceed expectations on all levels. If customers are disappointed or feel they didn't receive the experience they were promised at the suborbital level, it'll hurt any chances for orbital tourism."
"Field of Dreams" curse
Drawing from a range of experiences that her firm has gathered since 1993, Reifert has crafted a 10-point "Profile of a Space Tourist" - and for those hankering to mold the space travel business, her points about space thrill seekers are well worth noting:
1) They aren't rocket
2) They may be "super-sized".
3) They won't really care where you put your spaceport.
4) They shouldn't be expected to meet stringent physical requirements.
5) They don't like surprises and expect perfection.
6) They aren't overly concerned with price or safety.
7) They're short on time.
8) They'll likely be men over 50.
9) They will come from around the globe.
10) They're nothing like the tourists that show up at Disney parks.
Recently taking part in a university study group's view of an orbital tourism business, Reifert said she was miffed when one set of graduate students earmarked absolutely nothing for sales and marketing costs.
"When I asked why they hadn't budgeted anything to pay a company like Incredible Adventures to sell flights, they said they were sure the media would give them a lot of exposure, like they had for the SpaceShipOne flights. The students had what I call the 'Field of Dreams' curse....the 'build it and they will come' mentality. I sense several of the companies working to develop civilian space vehicles have the same unrealistic view of reality," Reifert explained.
In Reifert's view, few people can grasp the meaning of suborbital flight. That being the unfortunate case, people will not buy something they cannot understand. "Those who really want to see a space tourism industry need to be launching a public relations and education campaign...and that will cost money," she advised
While public access to aircraft-supplied zero gravity for a fee is now available within the United States, Reifert said that too few people understand what it's like to experience weightlessness.
"People didn't rush out to buy DVD players when they first came on the market. They first had to be educated in their advantages and made to understand the movie-viewing experience they'd enjoy," Reifert concluded.
There is no doubt that the personal spaceflight industry is turning the corner, in terms of becoming a reality-based affair, not a Twilight Zone fantasy world. The signposts up ahead are becoming easier to read.
Space Adventures, Ltd., a leading space experiences company based in Arlington, Virginia, announced this week the official opening of an office in Tokyo, Japan and the inauguration of a Japanese-language Space Adventures web site. The firm explained in a press statement that they've received thousands of requests from Japan, and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, with individuals hungry for more information on opportunities available today for space tourism.
"We have seen a trend in the last 18 months of a growing interest in private space exploration from Japan," explained Eric Anderson, president and Chief Executive Officer of Space Adventures.
Anderson's company was the first provider of orbital trips to space, handling pay-per-view customers, American businessman Dennis Tito and South African entrepreneur, Mark Shuttleworth - each shelling out millions of dollars for a Russian Soyuz rocket ride and a stay aboard the International Space Station. According to Anderson, the group will announce a Japanese space tourist in the coming weeks.
According to Space Adventures, a study undertaken by the University of Tokyo Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology has pinged public attitudes towards space exploration. Among the findings of their 10-year study, they discovered "an enormous unsatisfied desire among the general public to travel to space for themselves." Some 80 percent of young people up to the age of 40 would like to trek into space, and 30 percent of people in their 60's and 70's also stated they would like to travel to space, the study found.
A Space Adventures' suborbital program is currently in development, the firm has stated. It will consist of a four-day training period and a 90-minute spaceflight, with passengers experiencing up to five minutes of continuous weightlessness. The company is working with several of the leading space vehicle manufacturing companies and notes it is the first company to accept deposits from suborbital spaceflight clients, currently totaling over $2,000,000. Space Adventures is anticipating suborbital spaceflights to commence in the 2007-08 timeframe and the current, "up and going" price for the program is $102,000.
Enterprise and Eve
Not to be left behind and breathe the rocket fumes of any competitor, enter Virgin Galactic. This new subsidiary of the Virgin Group, a British conglomerate run by tycoon Sir Richard Branson, has contracted famed aerospace designer Burt Rutan and his Scaled Composites teammates in Mojave, California to supply a fleet of public-carrying suborbital vehicles.
Last year, the Mojave Aerospace Ventures penned a $21.5 million deal with the Virgin Group to license suborbital reusable launch vehicle technology based on Rutan's SpaceShipOne rocket plane. A $100 million investment plan has been developed to build up to five spaceships.
Virgin Galactic recently reported that work is well underway in the Mojave Desert on the initial design and technical feasibility of Virgin SpaceShip "Enterprise" and MotherShip "Eve".
"Although we can't divulge any details yet, we are confident that our safety and configuration specifications can and will be met and that we will very soon be able to move to the construction stage of the project," explained Alex Tai, Head of Operations at Virgin Galactic in a newsletter update.
Space is still available
The first flights under Virgin Galactic are planned to begin as early as 2008. Ticket price for a person's space hop has been set at $200,000.
"Flights are filling quickly but space is still available. Refundable deposits of at least 10 percent will be required to secure a seat," the space travel company's web site explains. "Our aim is to reduce ticket prices as the business grows over the coming years. We plan to offer the opportunity to reserve these tickets by payment of a small deposit against a future space flight at a time and price that suits you."
Virgin Galactic is busy surveying prospective suborbital space passengers - tagging them as astronauts in view of the altitude their vehicles will carry them: 62 miles (100 kilometers) above Earth.
Part of the questionnaire asks any future astronaut traveler to rank in order of importance the features of suborbital space flight, such as: becoming a space pioneer by flying in the first year of flights, viewing Earth from space, experiencing supersonic flight at over three times the speed of sound, undergoing acceleration forces at over four times normal gravity and feeling weightless, the reputation of the space line operator, as well as space ship safety features.
The potential space traveler is also queried about any qualms the person might have about traveling with Virgin Galactic, be they safety concerns, price, value for money, health and fitness requirements, at least a three-year wait, and the U.S. launch location.
Last month, Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic, told the U.S. House of Representative's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics that his company has even loftier plans. "Our long-term goal is to develop commercial space tourism into an orbital business which could in the future carry payloads as well as people into orbit," he testified in a written statement.
Also speaking before subcommittee lawmakers, Burt Rutan predicted that the commercial private spaceflight industry - once the revenue begins to flow - upwards of 100,000 space travelers will have "enjoyed that black sky view" by the twelfth year of operations.
By achieving the goals of building safe, affordable, and experience-optimized suborbital spaceships, "this is going to be a much, much bigger market than anyone imagines," Rutan said.