Private Spaceflight: Shifting into Fast Forward
XCOR Aerospace is making progress in putting together its suborbital business plans. The group is also engaged in future rocket races based on their EZ-Rocket design. Image
Credit: XCOR Aerospace

LAS CRUCES, New Mexico -- The next generation of human spaceflight is no longer the sole province of governments. Private spaceships transporting passengers first to the edge of space--and ultimately into orbit--are in various stages of design, construction and testing.

What's more, there is an air of competition between rival camps of rocketeers. They foresee big business as patrons dig deep in their wallets to shoot for the sky.

Last year's trio of suborbital flights by SpaceShipOne verified that the technological resources to build safe, affordable vehicles is at hand. Multiple spaceports spread around the country, and perhaps the world, may well handle outgoing and incoming spaceliners. Point-to-point suborbital space hops could permit super express delivery of payloads and passengers. And why not a five-star spa in Earth orbit?

Entrepreneurial rocketeers, government leaders, spaceport developers, economic and tourism experts took part in the First International Symposium on Personal Spaceflight, held here October 6 and presented by the X Prize Foundation and New Mexico State University (NMSU). The symposium was sponsored by Arianespace-USA.

The X Prize Foundation has formed a partnership with the state of New Mexico to host the annual X Prize Cup and to assist in building the Southwest Regional Spaceport in Upham, New Mexico. This year's activity is called the Countdown to the X Prize Cup.

"We are entering an age where the economics and drivers of spaceflight will help bring the prices down many fold, with reliability up. That will unleash the resources of space to the people of Earth...and that's our goal," said Peter Diamandis, Chairman of the X Prize Foundation.

Exciting sector

One buzz of curiosity at the one-day gathering dealt with the symposium sponsor, Europe's Arianespace, the commercial rocket-for-hire group created in 1980.

The series of SpaceShipOne suborbital flights last year was a thrill heard around the world, said Clayton Mowry, President, of Arianespace's U.S. affiliate. "We see something here. We're not sure exactly how we play in this space yet. We're here to learn...to see what's going on. We feel the excitement and we want to see if there's a way that we can work in this exciting sector," he told SPACE.com. "The excitement is contagious."

Mowry said that Arianespace has strengths in sales and marketing, contracts, as well as integration and operation. "A lot of these little companies could use someone with that kind of experience," he said.

Arianespace is a well-known name, particularly in Europe - a symbol of European success in space, Mowry said. "In fact, if you were to market commercial space services, and you wanted a firm in Europe that could market that service for you in Europe...it would certainly be a natural for us," he added.

Hardware on the floor

Among those detailing their future suborbital plans was Chuck Lauer, Vice President of Business Development for Rocketplane, Inc., headquartered in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

"There's hardware on the floor...all kinds of engineering going on," Lauer told the audience. Rollout of their suborbital Rocketplane XP is slated for fall 2006, with the craft to be present and accounted for at the X Prize Cup to be held here next year.

At the end of 2006, early 2007, "our intention is to be minting lots of civilian astronaut wings for everybody that's climbing into our vehicle," Lauer said. He suggested that a large market making use of the same suborbital technology now being developed is point-to-point delivery of people and cargo - one-hour hops to anywhere on the planet.

Lauer chided NASA for its spending of taxpayer dollars, at the expense of supporting private spaceflight operators.

"The government needs to figure out how to be a smart customer rather than a competitor to the entrepreneurial industry," Lauer said. "Why in the world does the government have to spend tens of billions of dollars creating dedicated government systems to do what the private sector can, should, and wants to do?"

Second prize race

"We're in the business of selling incredible views," said Brian Feeney, team leader of the Toronto, Canada-based Golden Palace.com Space Program, powered by the da Vinci Project.

Feeney's effort was once in the running to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize, as were a number of groups around the world. That purse was won last year by Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites in Mojave, California that built SpaceShipOne, bankrolled by Microsoft mogul, Paul Allen.

Feeney and his team have worked for over nine years developing their balloon-assisted suborbital rocket plans. "We've got the real testing behind us," he said, but added that still more evaluations of the hardware are spread out over the next six months - leading to flight by the end of 2006.

There was also a blush of unofficial competition between groups vying to get their suborbital designs into the air next. The drum beat to become the second effort to fly a private craft to the edge of space is clearly getting louder.

"I think there's a bit of a second prize race developing among some of the teams," Feeney suggested.

So much vision

Jeff Greason, President of XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, California, said they continue to work on their Xerus suborbital rocket plane, providing a cryptic update: "That program is underway and that's about all I can say about that at this time."

XCOR is also turning their attention to the recently announced Rocket Racing League, featuring X-Racer planes based on the company's EZ-Rocket design.

Greason said there are numerous challenges ahead for private spaceflight groups.

"We don't know how to make spaceships that fly a couple of times a day, every day for years," Greason told the audience. How to start making a profit also remains elusive, he said, "but we think we've got some pretty good ideas how to solve them."

"We've got so much vision," Greason said. "Vision is the one thing that's not been in short supply. We're short of everything else," he concluded.

 

Virgin Galactic: order is in

Clearly off to a roaring start in the space tourism business is that of Virgin Galactic. The company was formed by British entrepreneur, Richard Branson, to handle space tourist flights. He has linked up with aerospace designer, Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites, forming a new aerospace production company--The Spaceship Company. That entity will build a fleet of commercial suborbital spaceships and launch aircraft.

The order is in for the first five spaceships, with an option on the next five, said Alex Tai, Vice President of Operations for Virgin Galactic. "We'll be operating in front of everyone else for at least two years or so," Tai predicted.

Tai said that Virgin Galactic is happy with the deal struck with Rutan, but added: "We want to make sure that people realize that we're not just married to Burt Rutan technology," he told SPACE.com.

"We want to select the best technology for spaceflight participants of the future. We're not wedded just to Burt," Tai said. "We're very supportive of all the things that everyone else is doing. I've been talking to a lot of different people and told Burt that he had better stay on his toes. There's some really cool stuff out there that's going on," Tai explained.

 

Major motivator

Space tourism is happening, declared Priscilla Bloomquist, Associate Professor of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management at NMSU. She admitted that for many in her field, public space travel has been viewed as something off into the far future. "But the reality is that it's a reality."

However, Bloomquist did flag the fact that the personal spaceflight industry is driven heavily by the space side of the equation. "There needs to be more buy-in from the tourism side of the table," she said. Underscoring the fact that a space tourist is in it for the experience, those in the personal spaceflight business, she suggested, must be cognizant that this new industry should be "guest driven."

"Clearly price is a big issue," Bloomquist noted. Windows for viewing, a free-floating experience versus being strapped down tight, duration of the journey, and level of flight preparation - all these factors and others, she added, will influence whether or not people are going to put down good money to sail spaceward.

"Bragging rights," garnered by those public space travelers "is nothing new to the tourist industry. Status and prestige is a major motivator," Bloomquist advised.

The emergence of Virgin Galactic as a spaceline operator, Bloomquist said, should help shore up public confidence in space tourism. "There is a major trust factor that they bring to the table," she said.

Education and economic impact


The growth of personal spaceflight and the promise of the state's Southwest Regional Spaceport becoming reality just outside Las Cruces is all good news, said Patricia Hynes, co-chair of the symposium. She is also director of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium at NMSU.

Talk of a New Mexico spaceport has been on-going since 1992, Hynes said. "I've been involved in the spaceport because, in my mind, it was never a matter of if...it was when?"

Hynes said access to space through the local spaceport will help stimulate the needed workforce for next generation spaceflight. Hands-on student space projects are central to preparing that workforce, she said, running tandem with "a higher and more consistent commitment to better teaching in the university," she said.

Along with an educational impact, spaceports bring industry, jobs, and they become centers of economic activity, said Paula Trimble, a space transportation industry analyst in the Office of Commercial Space Transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Washington, D.C.

Trimble noted that New Mexico's Southwest Regional Spaceport plans to have a number of structures at the complex, and continues to move toward gaining an FAA spaceport license. The site could handle suborbital flights, equatorial and polar orbit launchings, as well as conduct servicing runs to the International Space Station, she said.

First steps

A draft of the Environmental Impact Statement for the Southwest Regional Spaceport is nearly complete, said Rick Homans, Spaceport Authority Chairman and New Mexico Economic Development Department Secretary. A spaceport groundbreaking is to occur later this year, he said.

The X Prize Cup activities and movement on the spaceport has received the backing of New Mexico's Governor, Bill Richardson.

Homans told SPACE.com that the importance of this year's Countdown to the X Prize Cup is to "give this emerging industry a place and a venue to show itself off to the world. It's clearly an industry that is not completely formed...but this is historic. These are the first steps of this industry coming together," he said.

"We're hoping that the industry and the world begin to view New Mexico as the home of the next generation of space travel. That's the brand...the image that we want and why we got involved with the X Prize Cup," Homans said. "It's about increased access and affordability when it comes to getting to space. We see these entrepreneurs headed in the same direction. They are heading up."

As the symposium closed, attention turned to the next Countdown to the X Prize Cup events: An educational and public activities held October 7-8 at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, and the October 9th Personal Spaceflight Expo at the Las Cruces International Airport.

Full details and e-tickets are available at: www.xprize.org