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ESA to Sponsor Space Tourism Work

TheEuropean Space Agency is ready to partner with private firms to help grow thepassenger space travel industry.

Thenew initiative is named "Feasibility of European Privately-funded Vehicles forCommercial Human Space Flight"--an outreach idea kick started last July wherebyprivate companies from across Europe were invited to submit to the EuropeanSpace Agency (ESA) their space tourism plans.

Afterit has looked over proposals received, ESA could award up to three contracts tothree European firms to further refine their prospective space tourism plans.Closing date for proposal submission is September 22, Virginie Schmit, an ESAContracts Officer, advised SPACE.com.

Thehope is that this recent call for proposals has triggered private companieskeen on public space travel to contact ESA with their plans, said DavidVivanco, a technical assistant working on the initiative within the Directorateof Launchers' Future Programs and Strategy Office at ESA Headquarters in Paris, France.

Evaluate the economics

Theawarding of several contracts allows ESA to survey European companies involvedin space tourism--from vehicle design to building the business case.

Selectedcompanies will perform a mission definition study based on a credible designfor a crew space vehicle, and a business case and financial plan whoseobjective is to evaluate the economic feasibility of the commercial venture.

Eachselected company will receive 150,000 Euros (roughly $190,000) to develop theirplans further. A team of experts from ESA's Launchers Directorate, who areinvolved in the development of the technologies for the next generationlauncher, will manage the studies, sharing their own expertise with thecompanies.

Vivancosaid this activity is funded by ESA's General Studies Program and managed by agroup of experts from ESA's Launchers Directorate. "I am looking forward toseeing the results," he told SPACE.com.

Amajor motivation for the ESA space tourism study is to identify potentialsynergies in terms of technologies between the space tourism vehicledevelopment industry and ESA's technology programs, Vivanco said.

Space tourism studies

Inthe past, ESA has performed studies on space tourism and reusable vehicles. Itis also foreseeable that ESA will perform other studies on the subject in thefuture.

Onone hand, this is the first time an ESA study is targeted at the companies thatare involved in the development of crew space vehicles for the space tourismmarket, Vivanco said. However, he added that ESA has undertaken several studiesregarding space tourism:

  • In 2004 there was the assessment of space adventure evolution--a space tourism market appraisal funded by the General Studies Program;

  • In 2005 an assessment of emerging private space ventures was carried out by the ESA Advanced Concept Team;
  • In 2006 there is a study dubbed "Future High-Altitude Flight--An Attractive Commercial Niche?" that is sponsored by the European Commission to identify potential show stoppers--technical, legal and other policy-related issues to help plot out a strategy for commercial suborbital flight in Europe.

Potential spaceports

"Insome ways, Europe is way ahead of the United States in space tourismpotential," said Derek Webber, Washington, D.C. Director of SpaceportAssociates, based in Bethesda, Maryland.

Forexample, Webber said, now being built at the European spaceport at Kourou in French Guiana is a pad for Russian Soyuz boosters. Soyuz is the only craft now in use forhauling a paying customer into Earth orbit. Furthermore, the Russians have alsotoyed with their Kliper spacecraft design as an upgrade to the Soyuz forgetting folks into low Earth orbit.

Meanwhile,there are British entrepreneurs that have pursued the dream of space tourismand reusable launch vehicle's for a long time.

"SirRichard Branson is leading the charge with his Virgin Galactic business, withpotential spaceports all over the place, starting with Mojave, California," Webber noted. Within Europe, spaceport proponents are looking at northern Scotland and Kiruna in Sweden, as well as Australian and Asian launch sites, he added.

Doing their homework

"TheEuropeans now have a pretty good capability for long term planning for space.It does not all happen in ESA...some takes place in the European Commission,too," Webber said.

Atpresent, for instance, there are concurrent space tourism initiatives takingplace. ESA is exploring mission definition and business case and financialplanning activities. Also, the European Commission is conducting a project, throughEuropean aerospace firms--EADS/Dassault--that is looking at potential road blocks to European space tourism operations.

"Ithink the Europeans have accepted the argument that there is a significant newmarket opportunity to pursue," Webber said, "that uses the high tech resourcesthat they have at their disposal, and which represents a non-military growthmarket."

Europe is "doing theirown homework," Webber concluded, to decide where they need to put theirresources. "It may not necessarily be financial, but maybe regulatory areasthat will get attention," he said.

American push

Giventhat both Europe and the U.S. have surveyed the space tourism marketplace, howwell to do those studies match up?

"Ithink the conclusions are shared by all the space community [that] spacetourism has a great potential to become a very successful business and a majordriver for space technology development," Vivanco explained. "If thismaterializes, the future of human spaceflight might even be exclusivelycommercial, potentially having a great impact on the scope of the activitiescarried out by space agencies."

Vivancoadded, however, that today "we have to be cautious and let this market evolveand prove that it can be self-sustained in a commercial basis," he said.

Europe'sramp up to better survey space tourism prospects has been sparked by U.S. activity in the public space travel field.

"Theflight of SpaceShipOne resolved all doubts regarding whether small privatecompanies could perform human suborbital spaceflight safely and inexpensively,"Vivanco said. "It also showed that there is a worldwide interest in spacetourism. It certainly opened the door to human suborbital spaceflight to becomea commercial business soon."

ForESA, Vivanco concluded, it is now important to better appreciate the currentspace tourism scene in Europe, and to gauge the credibility of work underway.

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