Private Spaceflight Industry Foresees Steady Progress in 2007

The budding personal space travel industry anticipatesprogress on a number of fronts in 2007, including favorable U.S. regulatorydecisions, the availability of affordable insurance, new spaceport developmentsand increased testing of new spaceship designs.

While noting the progress 2007 is expected to bring, thehead of the newly formed Personal Spaceflight Federation (PSF) says theindustry is still at the starting gate.

"We're still in the developing capabilities phase," said BrettonAlexander, vice president of corporate and external affairs at TransformationalSpace Corp. (t/Space) and the first president of Washington-based PSF.

PSF is an industry alliance of more than a dozen businessesand organizations engaged in commercial human spaceflight. The organization wascreated to address regulatory, legislative and policy issues facing theindustry, Alexander said.

PSF members include spaceship developers and operators, spaceports,space destination and transportation agents. The list of companies involved inthe industry include Bigelow Aerospace, a manufacturer of expandablespacecraft, as well as rocket and spacecraft developers such as SpaceExploration Technologies (SpaceX), SpaceDev, Rocketplane-Kistler and XCORAerospace.

Within the next few months the U.S. Federal AviationAdministration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation is expected to issueits final rules for the licenses that commercial suborbital spacecraft ownerswill need in order to conduct checkout and flight verification missions.

One part of the FAA rulemaking is designed to protect thesafety of members of the public who are not involved in private space traveloperations. Another part of the new rulemaking will contain regulationsdesigned to ensure that passengers--called "Space Flight Participants" in FAAdocuments--are able to make informed decisions about their personal safetybefore boarding private spaceliners.

Insurance and liability

John Gedmark, PSF's executive director, foresees continuedresearch and development activity on a number of vehicles and spaceportsthroughout the year.

"We anticipate these activities will lead to vigorous flighttesting in the following year, with the first commercial suborbital passengerflights taking place in 2009," Gedmark said.

But Alexander said there would be important areas that arenot addressed in the new FAA regulations, particularly issues of insurance andliability.

"That's where the industry and particularly the federationare going to spend a lot of its efforts. We want to make sure insurance isavailable, that it's affordable and that [the industry] can withstand anaccident--that is likely to happen sometime in the first few years of thisactivity," Alexander told Space News.

One issue still to be worked out is a standard cross waiverof liability, Alexander said. Cross waivers of liability such as those thatexist for expendable launch vehicle missions and space shuttle and space stationactivities provide some protection from lawsuits to companies and individualsinvolved in the specified activity.

The PSF also is focused on getting the FAA to come up with aworkable definition of "informed consent," that will apply to future commercialspace passengers who will be asked to sign liability waivers acknowledging therisks involved in commercial spaceflight, Alexander said. "You've got toregulate for safety, but you must get informed consent from passengers. What isthe standard for informed?"

Momentum and the legitimacy

"If 2007 can build on the momentum from the end of 2006, thespace tourism industry will be in great shape," said William Pomerantz,director of space projects for the X Prize Foundation, of Santa Monica, Calif.

Pomerantz pointed to the Nov. 13 flight of Blue Origin'sunpiloted Goddard vertical takeoff and landing vehicle, the beginning of aproject to develop passenger-carrying suborbital space ships. Blue Origin isbacked by billionaire Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com. Goddard made thisfirst test flight from Blue Origin's privately owned West Texas space launchsite. More test flights are scheduled to take place in 2007 as the companyrefines its designs for the New Shepard, a vehicle that will be designed to takecommercial passengers on flights into suborbital space.

Another milestone is expected in October when the Wirefly XPrize Cup will be staged again in Las Cruces, N.M., showcasing the evolution ofnumerous private space rocket ventures, Pomerantz said. "All of this is addingto the momentum and the legitimacy of the space tourism industry."

Meanwhile, phased work on New Mexico's Spaceport America hasstarted. The New Mexico spaceport is scheduled to be the world headquarters forSir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic suborbital spaceline. Current plans areto locate it 18.6 kilometers east of Truth or Consequences, N.M., and 30kilometers north of Las Cruces.

A major step toward its construction took place Dec. 21 whenthe New Mexico Spaceport Authority secured long-term access to 72.8 squarekilometers. Legal agreements were signed with the State Land Office, Sierra County,and two private ranch operations.

The voters of Dona Ana County in southern New Mexico will goto the polls April 3 to vote for a 0.25-cent gross receipts tax that will beused to fund infrastructure for Spaceport America and a math and scienceeducation program in the county school system.

"This is an important vote, because the credibility andviability of New Mexico's spaceport, Virgin Galactic and the new space industrywill be on the line," said Rick Homans, chairman of the New Mexico SpaceportAuthority and the state's cabinet secretary of economic development.

Homans told Space News the tax will generate about $6.8million each year, for 20 years. "Surrounding the election there will be a lotof questions asked and answered, and a positive vote will say a lot about thecommitment in New Mexico to the bold and innovative goal to build the world'sfirst purpose-built commercial spaceport," Homans said.

Rocket City

Spaceport America also will be the site for UP Aerospace'sreturn to flight following the Sept. 25 mishap that led to the crash of its SpaceLoftXL suborbital rocket. In the inaugural flight for the spaceport, the SpaceLoftXL rocket dove into the remote desert after 90 seconds of flight, destroyingcustomer payloads.

UP Aerospace, with its primary business office in HighlandsRanch, Colo., is developing the SpaceLoft XL to carry scientific, educationaland entrepreneurial payloads into suborbital space. The firm now is targetingits next launch from the site in April if it wins FAA approval for anotherlaunch. UP Aerospace also is working on a multiyear lease agreement with NewMexico Spaceport America officials.

Starchaser Industries of the United Kingdom also is eyeing New Mexico as a center for its operations. The group intends to open the firstphase of its New Mexico-based Starchaser Rocket City resort in 2007, saidSteven Bennett, chief executive officer of the rocket company.

Starchaser is developing the Thunderstar, passenger-carryingspace ship. Bennett said that flights aboard the Thunderstar/Starchaser 5rocket vehicles could take place from Spaceport America as early as 2009.

No substitutes for safety

According to Patricia Grace Smith, the FAA's associateadministrator for Commercial Space Transportation, 2007 is the "bridge year"for private human spaceflight--from business plans to start up to bendingmetal to firm and projected dates for initial operations.

"By year's end, I expect a substantially increased number oftests and experimentally permitted flights on the path to piloted flights inthe foreseeable future," Smith said.

"The vital ingredient in all this is scrupulous adherence tothe safest possible operations," she said. Smith said safety is the goal thatall agree is imperative. "To the extent that all parties accept no substitutesfor safety, private human spaceflight will grow in public acceptance and esteemto a point in time when it will be a routine form of transportation. That's whytesting is vital, and that's why I expect to see more of it in 2007," sheconcluded.

Have a news tip, correction or comment? Let us know at community@space.com.