The dream of opening space to the general public was given a tremendous boost in 2004 with SpaceShipOne's prize-winning suborbital jaunt and congressional legislation to help establish a space travel industry in the United States. But even the biggest champions of commercial spaceflight acknowledge that a vital space tourism market is still years from becoming reality.
On June 21, Mike Melvill made aviation history as the first person to pilot a privately financed vehicle into space. Sitting at the controls of SpaceShipOne, the 62-year-old civilian test pilot jockeyed the air-launched vehicle to an altitude of 100 kilometers, climbing above the Earth's atmosphere for a few moments before gliding to a runway landing in the Mojave desert.
The record-setting flight put Burt Rutan and Paul Allen's SpaceShipOne in the lead to win the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million purse offered to the first team to launch a spacecraft to 100 kilometers with a pilot and the weight equivalent of two passengers on board, return safely to Earth and repeat the feat in the same vehicle within two weeks.
Three months later, Melvill flew again, this time carrying the required passenger ballast to 102.9 kilometers. Five days after that, on Oct. 4, pilot Brian Binnie took the controls of SpaceShipOne and flew the craft to 112 kilometers. More than eight years after the St. Louis-based X Prize Foundation first announced the $10 million purse, a winner finally emerged from the field of 27 contenders. And not a moment too soon. To fund the purse, X Prize founder Peter Diamandis took out an insurance policy that was set to expire on Jan. 1, 2005. Had no one won the prize, the $10 million purse would have disappeared and the insurer would have pocketed the premium paid for the policy.
While the SpaceShipOne team was busy making history, a handful of U.S. lawmakers and their staffs were busy crafting legislation allowing American firms to test and license vehicles designed to carry paying passengers into suborbital space.
The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 (H.R. 5382) underwent many revisions after first passing the House of Representatives in March by a vote of 402-1. After a summer of back-and-forth negotiations with the Senate and a bout of infighting among suborbital firms, the bill was poised for final passage before the November elections, only to bog down over safety language added at the last minute. It was not until December that the bill finally was sent to the White House for the president's signature.
George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, a membership organization that advocates the exploration and settlement of space, said the surprise passage of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act may keep spaceflight providers and their financial backers from heading overseas in search of a more favorable regulatory environment. The Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation is now crafting regulations that protect public safety while allowing early private spacefarers to take the risks associated with any new transportation system.
Alan Ladwig, chief of government operations for Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based Zero Gravity Corp., said 2004 was a banner year for personal space travel, but there remains a long way to go before truly mass markets emerge.
Ladwig, a senior NASA space policy advisor during the 1990s, said space tourism is finally rising above the "snicker factor."
"During my tenure at NASA, you really couldn't talk about space tourism and get a lot of respect from senior managers," he said. "With the accomplishments companies made this year and the recognition from Congress that this is a serious effort, I think that is starting to change and that is only for the good."
Ladwig said another positive development is the emergence of well-heeled investors motivated to put money into space ventures.
"Clearly when you get people of the caliber of Richard Branson and Paul Allen investing serious capital into this step, that is a significant development," he said.
Branson, the Virgin Group's founder and chairman, announced this fall that he was licensing the SpaceShipOne technology from Allen's Mojave Aerospace Ventures to launch Virgin Galactic Airlines in the next few years. Virgin Galactic would offer suborbital spaceflights to passengers willing to pay $200,000 for the experience.
Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos is quietly designing a manned spaceship in Seattle and PayPal founder Elon Musk is still shooting for a 2005 launch of the unmanned Falcon 1 rocket.
Ladwig said that while the first passengers to space will have to pay dearly for the experience, contests and other "innovative marketing approaches" could make the opportunity available to people of ordinary means.
In the meantime, Ladwig's company, Zero G, began taking passengers this year aboard a modified Boeing 727 that flies parabolic arcs to create the sensation of weightlessness. The experience, once the exclusive province of astronauts and researchers with good NASA connections, is now available to anyone willing to pay $3000 for the three-hour flight.