Space Tourism: Next Steps Taking Shape

Ticket-to-ridecommuter flights to the edge of space may not be too far off - with spacelinersdeparting several spaceports here in the United States.

New factsregarding the emerging personal space travel business were presented last weekbefore the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics in Washington, D.C.

Testifying before lawmakers and making the technical andbusiness case for public space travel were Burt Rutan, chief of ScaledComposites of Mojave, California, joined by Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic - a spacetourism venture that is a subsidiary of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group.

Last year,privately-financed, single-seat suborbital flights of SpaceShipOne wereachieved, snagging the Ansari X Prize in the process. That $10 million pursewas put in play to spur both suborbital and orbital public spacetransportation. SpaceShipOne was designed and built by Scaled Composites.

Also in2004, a deal was struck between Mojave Aerospace Ventures, a joint ventureformed by Rutan and billionaire Paul Allen,co-founder of Microsoft, and the Virgin Group. For their part, Virgin hascreated a new subsidiary, Virgin Galactic, which has plans to contract ScaledComposites to build a fleet of suborbital vehicles based on the SpaceShipOne -but able to haul up to five passengers high above Earth.

Thenegotiations between the groups last year resulted in a $21.5 million deal forthe use of SpaceShipOne technology. In addition, a $100 million investment planwas developed to build up to five SpaceShipTwo vehicles at Rutan's ScaledComposites factory in Mojave, California.

The planfor the ships themselves is being developed by Rutan to a specification createdby Virgin Galactic, Whitehorn testified.

Second site: Florida,Texas or New Mexico?

In hiswritten testimony, Whitehorn told Congress that his company's current plan isto begin suborbital operations in Mojave, and then develop a second site inanother location, possibly Florida, Texas or New Mexico.

In terms offirst flight, the Virgin Galactic chief said that service could start in either2008 or 2009.

"Let me beclear, this is an estimate only," Whitehorn testified, noting that "safety isour North Star and it will determine our launch date." Commercial suborbital jaunts would start assoon as safety assessments and training dictate that the firm could do so, "andnot a day before," he said.

VirginGalactic has a memorandum of understanding with Scaled Composites to customizethe SpaceShipOne vehicle for commercial use. Design work to that end continues.However, Whitehorn's firm has not yet formally ordered the spacecraft.

As far asmaking money on the venture, Whitehorn reported that their business planprojects profitability in the fourth or fifth year of operation. This estimateassumes five spaceships, two launch aircraft or mother ships, and two launchbases in the United States."If the schedule for deploying any of these assets slips, it would negativelyimpact our target date for profitability," he explained.

Pay-as-you-go astronauts

  • Commercialcompanies that develop lower-cost versions of the classic government boosterand spacecraft concepts. These firms then conduct commercial flights in 4 to 6years that are funded by passenger ticket sales. Perhaps 50 to 100 astronautswould be flown the first year with the rate topping out at maybe 300 to 500 peryear.
  • Thesecond scenario involves players that do not find the dangers of space flightacceptable. It is recognized that extensive improvements in safety are moreimportant than extensive improvements in affordability. These players are facedwith a much greater technical challenge and the need for new innovations andbreakthroughs. If successful, however, a far greater market can be realized,starting out at 500 astronauts the first year, increasing to about 3,000 astronautsper year, headed toward 50,000 to 100,000 astronauts by the twelfth year ofoperations.

Just having fun

Rutan saidthat his plans do not involve a 'scenario one' approach.

"We believea proper goal for safety is the record that was achieved during the first fiveyears of commercial scheduled airline service which, while exposing thepassengers to high risks by today's standards, was more than 100 times as safeas government manned space flight," Rutan explained in his written testimony.

Rutanremarked that he's aware suborbital tourism has been criticized by some as"joy-riding for billionaires" and that such flights are just about having fun.

"I'm not atall embarrassed that we're opening up a new industry that will likely be amulti-billion dollar industry that's focused only on fun," Rutan toldlawmakers. He expects -- like the first personal computers that were used justfor game playing -- having fun by traveling into space will bloom in a decade'stime into uses that are "long lasting and significant for our nation."

Interim spaceport

In arelated development, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced earlier thismonth that October 4-9 will be celebrated as X Prize Cup Week. White Sands Missile Rangewill be the interim spaceport until a Southwest Regional Spaceport in Upham, near Las Cruces, is opened in 2007 or 2008.

The news that Virgin Galacticenvisions use of several takeoff points for propelling patrons toward space iswelcome news to Peter Diamandis, Chairmanand Founder of the X Prize Foundation, based in St. Louis

"Our hope is that the X Prize Cupactivities will help bring suborbital tourism operators to the southern New Mexico site foryear-round passenger launch operations," said Diamandis. He told SPACE.comvia email that the drivers to encourage this prospect are very clear.

First, New Mexico is setting up, and paying for,customized facilities specifically designed to support this class of vehicle.Secondly, the X Prize Foundation and the State are jointly planning to assistcompanies in getting the required licenses and approvals. Lastly, Diamandiscontinued, the State is offering economic incentives to attract these operatorsto the Southern New Mexico facilities.

"Clearly there is room for a numberof locations for suborbital personal spaceflight. If all goes well, thiswill be a rising tide that lifts many spaceports, and for the first timeenables a true commercial market," Diamandis explained.

Time to climb

Diamandis explained that thiscoming fall they plan to have a number of the key X Prize teams demonstratevarious aspects of their hardware. "This will include engine tests,low-altitude flights and drop tests. In the future our intent is to put upmultimillion dollar prizes to incentivize continued breakthroughs in suborbitaloperations," he said.

Prizes might be tied to such areas as maximum altitude, cross-range,turn-around-time, and time-to-climb, Diamandis added.

"Weare very proud of our partnership with New Mexico, Las Cruses and Governor Richardson,"Diamandis said. "We're working to make the X Prize Cup an exciting annual eventthat will move the industry forward at the same time that it allows the publicto personally participate in the future of the personal spaceflightrevolution."

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.