Going Private: The Promise and Danger of Space Travel
SpaceShipOne, attached to White Knight, taxis out as the Mojave Aerospace Ventures Team attempts to win the Ansari X Prize in Mojave, Calif. on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2004.
Credit: AP Photo/Laura Rauch.

A flurry of space tourism milestones and announcements in recent days signals that human spaceflight is shifting from governments to the private sector, space experts say.

After years of promises, the industry is suddenly blossoming. Yet as regular folks thunder into the unknown, risk will likely grow.

Commercial zero-gravity jaunts became available for the first time this month. A successful manned space flight took place yesterday. And earlier this week, entrepreneurs announced a $50 million prize for the first private orbiting vessel, as well as public flights into space as early as 2007.

"It's going to transform everything," George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, said of private space tourism efforts. "This is an unbelievable bumper year for human spaceflight."

Increased risk?

Yesterday pilot Mike Melvill -- the first civilian astronaut -- again flew the privately built SpaceShipOne to suborbital height in a very public launch that drew crowds of people and was broadcast live on the Internet. The flight was the first of two planned launch attempts to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize, a competition designed to spur construction of reusable manned spacecraft.

While successful, the flight had its share of danger, when SpaceShipOne went into an unexpected roll near the top of its trajectory, spinning some 20 times. The incident, combined with a control issue during a previous SpaceShipOne flight, highlights the risk inherent in space travel.

That risk, present during the entire Space Age, could grow as the industry is privatized.

"Private individuals are willing to take risks that government [agencies] can't take," explained Howard McCurdy, a space historian and professor of public affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. "I think [the X Prize] clearly has a Lindburgh effect that is drawing attention to the field."

The big unknown in all this may be the extent to which people really want pay for joy rides off the planet. It appears there will soon be no shortage of tickets to buy.

Building a spaceflight industry

It has been three years since Dennis Tito paid several million dollars for a trip to the International Space Station. Since then, the idea of space tourism seemed to get a bit stale. Little else happened.

Suddenly the industry has been galvanized by the X Prize flight and four significant announcements this month:

  • Zero gravity flights - X Prize Foundation president Peter Diamandis and his Zero Gravity Corp. now offer weightlessness to the public in high-altitude roller-coaster rides aboard a modified airplane. Ticket price: $3,000.
  • Space tourism - British entrepreneur Richard Branson will launch Virgin Galactic, relying on licensed SpaceShipOne technology, with plans to send 3,000 people to space by 2009. Ticket price: $208,000.
  • America's Space Prize - Nevada millionaire Robert Bigelow will develop a $50 million prize for the first orbital passenger vehicle.
  • Dream Chaser - NASA researchers will collaborate with the firm SpaceDev to develop new hybrid rocket technologies, which SpaceDev hopes will propel a reusable, crewed spacecraft dubbed Dream Chaser.

The X Prize has helped turned the fantasy of space travel into a near reality. But as the $10 million purse is on the verge of being awarded, parallel dreams are also about to be realized.

"This is the pinnacle result of efforts from a lot of people, and it's not just about the X Prize," said Rick Tumlinson, founder of the Space Frontier Foundation. "There is an entire industry out there...a new space industry that has branched off and built on its past."

Starting with satellite construction and launches, private space industry has gradually reached the point where it can catapult private citizens into space. Multiple ways to access the black void and a robust commercial space infrastructure will help secure a human foothold out there, Tumlinson told SPACE.com.

NASA shifting gears

Meanwhile, the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and a changing culture at NASA are dramatically altering the playing field.

Consider that the only two manned space flights planned in the Americas for the remainder of this year are by private firms: SpaceShipOne's second attempt and a Canadian effort that is currently on hold.

With its shuttle fleet grounded until at least March of 2005, NASA's next crew of astronauts must rely on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get off the planet. The shuttle problem illustrates why many think a different approach is needed to sustain a healthy spaceflight industry.

"You do not want a single point of failure," Tumlinson said. "If it's all crammed into one giant government vehicle, then we're doomed from the start and it will fail."

McCurdy said NASA has already begun revamping its relationship with the private space industry.

In addition to the NASA Ames-SpaceDev partnership, the agency has had a standing relationship with Florida's United Space Alliance (USA) to service and prepare its space shuttle fleet for each mission. The agency also plans to offer its own cash prizes for space accomplishments, another sign the agency is learning from private industry, McCurdy said. He added that such prizes, like insurance incentives, are just one way the government can support new industries.

Riskier than a 747

The current spirit of today's privately funded human spaceflight efforts is akin to that of NASA's suborbital Mercury program in the 1960s, McCurdy said. But there are stark differences, too. Spaceflight then was a matter of national prestige, with NASA and the U.S. reluctant to stretch risks of both pilots or spacecraft.

Commercial firms have a little more breathing room when it comes to risk.

"We must live with these risks and the possibility to fail," Diamandis said during yesterday's SpaceShipOne flight. "Without taking risks, there are no breakthroughs."

Burt Rutan, the engineer behind SpaceShipOne, told SPACE.com in a Sept. 23 telephone interview that there is "no way" that SpaceShipOne would be as safe as a 747 jetliner. Instead, he said, he and his team are aiming at achieving the safety rates of the early airliners.

"This isn't like flying airplanes, or United," said Whitesides, of the NSS. "What they are doing is hard." He added that preparing for the new risks can mean adjustments as a culture and as a society.

"Space is risky, and somewhere, sometime over the next 10 years, we have to expect things are not always going to go well, and we have to ready for that," Whitesides said in a telephone interview.

Despite the increased risk, people will pay for a ride that goes fast and a ride that goes high, analysts say.

For example, adventure seekers and mountaineers pay upwards of $100,000 to scale mountains such as Everest or the challenging K2, knowing they might not return.

"But still, people are clamoring to go," McCurdy said. "There appears to be this incredible draw for some people."

On a regular airplane, McCurdy said, the risk of not making it to your destination is about 1 in 10 million, while on a military combat mission the odds are about 1 in 23,000. Military risk levels, rather than the current 1 in 50 for human spaceflight, could be a good target for Rutan's and other spacecraft, he added.

Tourism: An ugly word

Even as the media and public may fixate on the recent spate of space tourism announcements, Tumlinson sees the "space tourist" label as a limiting factor to the developing industry.

"It's sort of derogatory to think of all the people who would be flying in space as tourists," he said. "I do see tourism as a small part of a potentially larger market."

Space tourism, he says, is currently being seized upon as a "magic bullet" for the private space industry, while the future of sustainable spaceflight lies in steadfast progress toward a reliable orbital infrastructure that could serve as both an industrial base and a gateway to deep space.

Ultimately, according to analysts and entrepreneurs, it could be asteroid mining or planetary migration that would support the private spaceflight industry, rather than merely thrill-seeking.

"I'm excited, but I'm cautious," Tumlinson said, of this year's private human spaceflight activity. "I think this time we may have something real, we have a lot of momentum building."