The European Space Agency is ready to partner with private firms to help grow the passenger space travel industry.

The new initiative is named "Feasibility of European Privately-funded Vehicles for Commercial Human Space Flight"--an outreach idea kick started last July whereby private companies from across Europe were invited to submit to the European Space Agency (ESA) their space tourism plans.

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

The hope is that this recent call for proposals has triggered private companies keen on public space travel to contact ESA with their plans, said David Vivanco, a technical assistant working on the initiative within the Directorate of Launchers' Future Programs and Strategy Office at ESA Headquarters in Paris, France.

Evaluate the economics

The awarding of several contracts allows ESA to survey European companies involved in space tourism--from vehicle design to building the business case.

Selected companies will perform a mission definition study based on a credible design for a crew space vehicle, and a business case and financial plan whose objective is to evaluate the economic feasibility of the commercial venture.

Each selected company will receive 150,000 Euros (roughly $190,000) to develop their plans further. A team of experts from ESA's Launchers Directorate, who are involved in the development of the technologies for the next generation launcher, will manage the studies, sharing their own expertise with the companies.

Vivanco said this activity is funded by ESA's General Studies Program and managed by a group of experts from ESA's Launchers Directorate. "I am looking forward to seeing the results," he told

A major motivation for the ESA space tourism study is to identify potential synergies in terms of technologies between the space tourism vehicle development industry and ESA's technology programs, Vivanco said.

Space tourism studies

In the past, ESA has performed studies on space tourism and reusable vehicles. It is also foreseeable that ESA will perform other studies on the subject in the future.

On one hand, this is the first time an ESA study is targeted at the companies that are involved in the development of crew space vehicles for the space tourism market, Vivanco said. However, he added that ESA has undertaken several studies regarding 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

"In some ways, Europe is way ahead of the United States in space tourism potential," said Derek Webber, Washington, D.C. Director of Spaceport Associates, based in Bethesda, Maryland.

For example, 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 for hauling a paying customer into Earth orbit. Furthermore, the Russians have also toyed with their Kliper spacecraft design as an upgrade to the Soyuz for getting folks into low Earth orbit.

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

"Sir Richard Branson is leading the charge with his Virgin Galactic business, with potential 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

"The Europeans 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.

At present, for instance, there are concurrent space tourism initiatives taking place. ESA is exploring mission definition and business case and financial planning activities. Also, the European Commission is conducting a project, through European aerospace firms--EADS/Dassault--that is looking at potential road blocks to European space tourism operations.

"I think the Europeans have accepted the argument that there is a significant new market opportunity to pursue," Webber said, "that uses the high tech resources that they have at their disposal, and which represents a non-military growth market."

Europe is "doing their own homework," Webber concluded, to decide where they need to put their resources. "It may not necessarily be financial, but maybe regulatory areas that will get attention," he said.

American push

Given that both Europe and the U.S. have surveyed the space tourism marketplace, how well to do those studies match up?

"I think the conclusions are shared by all the space community [that] space tourism has a great potential to become a very successful business and a major driver for space technology development," Vivanco explained. "If this materializes, the future of human spaceflight might even be exclusively commercial, potentially having a great impact on the scope of the activities carried out by space agencies."

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

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

"The flight of SpaceShipOne resolved all doubts regarding whether small private companies could perform human suborbital spaceflight safely and inexpensively," Vivanco said. "It also showed that there is a worldwide interest in space tourism. It certainly opened the door to human suborbital spaceflight to become a commercial business soon."

For ESA, Vivanco concluded, it is now important to better appreciate the current space tourism scene in Europe, and to gauge the credibility of work underway.