LOS ANGELES - While paying for a flight on a commercial spaceship is now closer to reality challenges do remain, with flight safety a high priority. Furthermore, there are regulatory battles still to be waged. And major technical issues await resolution.

Still, significant and fast-paced progress is being made advised private space travel authorities speaking at Transforming Space: Innovation, Infrastructure and Intellectual Capital, sponsored by the California Space Authority and held here December 1-2.

From space, the sights are spectacular, assured Brian Binnie, a test pilot and private astronaut for Scaled Composites in Mojave, California. He flew the first and the last powered flights of the SpaceShipOne. That craft in 2004 made back-to-back suborbital voyages to the edge of space, clinching the $10 million Ansari X Prize--a purse offered to kindle private space travel.

The SpaceShipOne design was led by aerospace inventor, Burt Rutan, now busy at work with his team on a follow-on, multi-passenger spaceliner.

"I don't care who takes you up there...it's going to be behind a rocket motor...shuttering, shaking and shrieking at you," Binnie emphasized. "That's going to get the heart pumping and the adrenaline flowing."

Binnie said that after rocket motor shutdown, a trio of things occurs, almost simultaneously: The noise stops, the shaking of the vehicle ends, and you become instantly weightless.

"That's an uplifting, enlightening feeling that's real enjoyable," Binnie said. "Everywhere you look, I'm here to tell you, it's wow...for lack of a more sophisticated word."

Sense of themselves

"Space tourism is going to succeed," said John Spencer, a space architect and President of the Space Tourism Society, "because people want to have a unique life changing experience. They desire it. They want it. They crave it. They need it."

"We are going to be having sex in space...it's a frontier that needs to be explored, just as any other frontier," Spencer predicted.

From the vantage point of space, public space travelers can also gain a sense of themselves, as well as the Earth.

"We are one planet. How do we cooperate better and how do we take better care of the planet...and how do we have fun doing it," Spencer advised.

Plenty of reality to celebrate

The emerging public space travel business is very real and increasingly so given the last few years, "but let's not kid ourselves," cautioned Jeff Greason, Chief Executive Officer of XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, California. "There is at least as much work ahead of us as there is behind us,"

And along the road, accidents are sure to happen.

"It's not if...it's when," Greason pointed out. "No mode of transportation has ever been developed without loss of human life...and this isn't going to be the first."

Like any real industry, real money must be made, along with delivery of real results, Greason stressed. Nevertheless, he added, the prospect appears sound of placing space transportation on a commercial paying basis for both people and passengers.

Greason's cautionary advice to fellow rocketeers: "We don't have to over-promise. We have plenty of reality to celebrate."

Registered applications


Capitalizing on the suborbital flights of SpaceShipOne last year--and putting dollars down on creating a passenger-carrying spaceliner under the moniker of Virgin Galactic--is adventurer and British businessman, Sir Richard Branson.

In July, Branson teamed up with Rutan of Scaled Composites to form a new aerospace production company. The new firm, The Spaceship Company, will build a fleet of commercial suborbital spaceships and launch aircraft.

As Director of Operations at Virgin Galactic, Alex Tai oversees the design and building of the new SpaceShipTwo now on order. He also plans to pilot the first commercial flight of the spaceliner.

Virgin Galactic has placed an order for five spaceships, Tai said. "We expect these to be delivered sometime within the next couple of years...we're deep in the engineering program for developing SpaceShipTwo."

Tai said that Virgin Galactic already has some 33,000 registered applications for suborbital flights. "We've taken over $10 million in deposits and we've not really started to advertise," he noted.

Moon travel...and beyond

Virgin Galactic intends to be a growing and going business, Tai said. First suborbital flight, then passenger travel into Earth orbit, he added.

From there, Tai said that Virgin Galactic envisions lunar orbit trips for the public, as well as Moon landings. Branson also has his eyes on another interplanetary target.

"The business case of going to Mars eludes me currently. But I'm sure someone can convince me soon," Tai told the audience.

As for the wellbeing of public space travelers on Virgin Galactic, the group is committed to attaining the highest of safety standards possible, Tai said. "This embryonic industry will survive or fail on the safety that we can demonstrate during the first few years," he said.

Tai said that Virgin Galactic is a real company, with real aims. "And we're going to make it work," he concluded.