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Rutan: Space Tourism Will Thrive, But Regulations Hinder Progress

UPDATE: Story first posted at 5:26 p.m. April 20, 2005

Speaking before the House Subcommittee on Space andAeronautics Wednesday, SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan said the commercialspace industry will thrive but the current regulatory system is need of repairand nearly destroyed his program.

Rutan was one a of a group experts in the emergingcommercial space market to testify before lawmakers. Congress is attempting todefine what role the government should or shouldn't play in supportingentrepreneurial space progress.

Thepotential of space tourism was made all the more real bylast year's successful suborbital flights by SpaceShipOne, the world's firstprivately-built and human-piloted spaceship.

Workis underway to build an affordable and safe vehicle to make personalspaceflight a reality, Burt Rutan, the chief designer of SpaceShipOne told thelawmakers. Rutan, who heads the Mojave, California-based Scaled Composites,envisions multiple competing "spaceline" operators vying for space travelerdollars.

"Theairline experience has shown us that it is not just technology that providessafety but the maturity that comes from a high-level of flight activity," Rutansaid.

However,Rutan criticized the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and its office ofthe Associate Administrator forCommercial Space Transportation (AST), saying "the AST process,focusing only on the non-involved public, just about ruined my program."

Streamlining Procedures

AST'sstated mission is to ensureprotection of the public, property, and the national security and foreignpolicy interests of the United States during a commercial launch or re-entryactivity and to encourage, facilitate, and promote U.S. commercial spacetransportation.

"Itresulted in cost-overruns," Rutan said. "It increased the risk for my testpilots. It did not reduce the risk to the non-involved public. It destroyed oursafety policy of always question the product, never defend it."

Theregulatory process imposed by AST, Rutan continued, "was grossly misapplied forour research tests. And worse yet, is likely to be misapplied for theregulation of future commercial spaceliners."

Rutansaid that the FAA is already in short supply of people to maintain itsregulatory vigil over the airline industry. There's need for streamlining thecertification of new commercial spaceships, he said, with the designer ready towork with FAA/AST on tackling these and other regulatory, safety, andcertification issues.

PatriciaGrace Smith, the FAA's associate administrator for commercial spacetransportation, responded to Rutan's testimony, saying the agency "is extremelyproud of our safety record and we intend to maintain this level of publicsafety as we work with developers of suborbital reusable launch vehicles(RLVs). The space tourism sector represents a promising new market that willgenerate economic benefits for our nation but only if it is considered a sageand reliable form of transportation. We are striving to support and promote thedevelopment of this new industry by offering a regulatory environment thatfosters innovation and creativity."

"Thisproblem must be solved quickly to support an industry that needs a properresearch environment to allow innovation," Rutan said.

Oncea commercial spaceliner is realized, Rutan said, it will likely fly as many as500 astronauts the first year. And by the fifth year, that number would rise to3,000 people per year. By the twelfth year of operations, at least 50,000 to100,000 individuals "will have enjoyed the black sky view of suborbitalflight," he said.

Viable business

Last September, Sir Richard Branson announced thathis newly formed Virgin Galactic would buy a fleet ofspacecraft based on SpaceShipOne's design to carry tourists into suborbitalspace. The technologyis owned by Microsoft mogul, Paul Allen, and is called Mojave AerospaceVentures.

"We've not taken lightly the idea of entering the personalspaceflight market," Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic and GroupCorporate Affairs and Brand Development Director for Virgin Management Limitedsaid during the hearing. "We believe that within 5 years we can create a viablebusiness," he said, an enterprise that would lead to eventual reduction ofEarth-to-space ticket costs from an initial fee of $200,000 a seat.

Whitehorn said Virgin Galactic would like to order at leastfive SpaceShipTwo vehicles and start operations before the end of the decade."We would like to be going through a testing process by the end of 2007...andcommercial operation by 2008, if that was possible," he testified.

There's a big difference in purchasing an aircraft fromairline manufacturers, contrasted to buying a suborbital spaceship, Whitehornsuggested. "We are in uncharted territory here...at the experimental cutting edgeof a new industry."

Whitehornsaid that, since announcing their suborbital passenger plans, Virgin Galactichas received 29,000 applications. He emphasized that they were not movingforward on the space travel business "as a rich billionaire's toy adventure."

"Thepioneer astronauts will help fund the process of making personal spaceflightsomething that people...can enjoy and afford in the future," Whitehorn said. "Webelieve that, eventually, we could get it down to $25,000 or $30,000 after anumber of years, per flight, per person."

Largecabins, big windows

Rutan would not provide specific details on his spacelinerdesign. "We're only at the preliminary stage of technology development," henoted.

On the other hand, the aerospace designer offered a sneakpeek at what a ticket-in-hand space passenger might see. "The very firstgeneration of commercial suborbital spaceships will be experience-optimized,"Rutan added.

There will be large cabins and big windows, Rutan explained,all for the benefit of the free-floating passenger so he or she can fullyexperience four-to-five minutes of weightless time. "We are working very hardon assuring that this will be extremely attractive to the public, extremelyaffordable, and it will be at least as safe a the early airlines," he said.

Rutan said he intends to franchise his spaceliner design. Indoing so, an operator would also have to follow specific rules for maintainingand flying the vehicle safely. Between five and ten years into operation, heexpects to see three to four operators competing with each other from variouslaunch sites - all able to tap into "an enormous, enormous market."

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