Taking the Pulse of Personal Spaceflight

Europe Unveils Space Plane for Tourist Market
The space plane would take off from an as-yet undetermined spaceport using two conventional jet engines. The plane would climb to 7.5 miles (12 km) in altitude before its rocket engine ignites, powering the vehicle through a coast phase that would provide passengers with one and one-half minutes of near-zero-gravity experience. (Image credit: EADS)

GOLDEN, Colorado — The prospect of public space travel has shot past the high-volume "giggle factor" of a few years ago. Companies around the globe are busy at work hammering out passenger-carrying spaceship designs, banking on a hoped-for lucrative suborbital travel market.

But adventure seekers lining up at a spaceport's departure gate is one thing — yet another is how best private space firms can financially fuel their respective dream machines, as well as sort through a labyrinth of regulatory, insurance, and safety hoops.

To take the current pulse of the commercial spaceflight industry, you can put yourself at month's end on a trajectory that propels you to New Mexico and the Third International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight (ISPS-2007).

ISPS is being held October 24-25 in Las Cruces, New Mexico, the opening event of this year's 2007 Wirefly X Prize Cup to be staged a few days later at neighboring Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo.

Closing the credibility gap

"ISPS-2007 is to create the community that grows the personal spaceflight business," explained Patricia Hynes, chair of the two-day event at the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum. She's also Director of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium and the NASA Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) at New Mexico State University.

Hynes told SPACE.com that the symposium has a far more international flavor this year. "I think it's very important to keep closing the credibility gap about the entire commercial and personal spaceflight business case," she said, pointing to Arianespace Inc. (USA) as the title sponsor of the gathering.

Arianespace has an impressive spaceport track record in Kourou, French Guiana — the rocket-for-hire company that currently performs Ariane 5 liftoffs, making use of state-of-the-art facilities that will soon welcome Vega and Soyuz launch vehicles.

ISPS will provide a progress report on New Mexico's own spaceport.

In development is the state's inland Spaceport America, based on years of study. It is now a targeted 27 square-miles (70 square-kilometers) of state-owned land, 45 miles (72 kilometers) north of Las Cruces. Backed by state governor and U.S. presidential hopeful, Bill Richardson, legislation and voter support to finance the spaceport is underway. Recruitment of maverick aerospace groups to set up shop in New Mexico has been ongoing, such as Sir Richard Branson's commitment to establish Virgin Galactic spaceliner headquarters in the state.

Safety: first concern

On the one hand, personal spaceflight has turned the corner in vehicle development and collaboration between regulatory agencies, Hynes noted. However, as for raising capital to financially fuel private space operations, "we're in the very beginning stages," she said, underscoring the fact that access to credit is undergoing a global belt-tightening.

Hynes said that a consistent message running through the upcoming ISPS, and in past symposia, is safety. For example, last July's accident and loss of life at the Scaled Composites site of SpaceShipTwo work accentuated that factor.

"Until we know what happened, speculation is a waste of time. We do know that it's a risky business — we do know that there will be accidents," Hynes observed. As more and more of the public partake in suborbital and orbital trips, safety is paramount, she said, "and that is everybody's first concern."

Expectations versus reality

David Livingston, host of The Space Show, is leading a special symposium panel of prospective and already flown space travelers, including businesswoman Anousheh Ansari. She purchased a multi-million dollar travel ticket last year to the International Space Station via a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Livingston's panel is equally divided among space flyers and wannabes. The intent is to gauge expectations versus reality in space travel, as well as solicit advice for those training and planning a personal space trek.

"I want to explore realistic expectations and recommendations with those on the panel having been to space and those on the panel wanting to go to space," Livingston told SPACE.com. "Let's find out how willing the future space travelers are to follow the recommendations of those that have been in space. Are expectations for their trip realistic?"

In the larger picture, Livingston added, ISPS is a power-packed confab of leaders in finance, travel, entrepreneurism and marketing that can help push forward the personal spaceflight enterprise. Still, those looking for the true recipe to sell public space travel stand to benefit from symposium presentations from Coca Cola and the specialty pharmaceutical enterprise, the Celgene Corporation, briefings that share marketing know-how for new products in developing markets, he said.

Symposium tracks are varied in content, from progress in vehicle systems and the synergy between government and personal spaceflight to marketing the "New Space" business and building the spaceport network.

Business plans

The meeting is to be a gathering spot for such notables as Elon Musk, president of Space Exploration Technologies (Space X), Alex Tai, chief operating officer of Virgin Galactic, and Mark Sirangelo, chairman and chief executive officer of SpaceDev. Each will discuss their respective business plans for space commercialization. Also on the agenda are talks by representatives from Europe's EADS Astrium, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, as well as overviews by NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and senior U.S. Air Force speakers.

At this year's ISPS, a scan of the various exhibitors also gives an inkling of how the public space travel agenda is maturing. For example, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) will be on hand.

Established in 1997, the NSBRI is a nonprofit academic research consortium that operates under a cooperative agreement with NASA. NSBRI is delving into countermeasures to the physical and psychological challenges that individuals face on long-duration spaceflights. More to the point, many of the NSBRI projects also have applications to short-duration personal spaceflight.

Co-sponsors of ISPS are: The X Prize Foundation, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Association of Space Explorers, New Mexico State University and the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, with SPACE.com sister publication — Space News — as exclusive media sponsor.

Hynes, the ISPS chair, concluded that the symposium is the place to be, to help sustain and push the personal spaceflight market forward. "It's like going to the Sundance Film Festival. Once you get there — ain't nothing like it."

For detailed registration information on the 2007 International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight, visit: http://spacegrant.nmsu.edu/isps/

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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 Space.com'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.