When will ordinary people be able to buy a ticket to fly into space?
Private companies have been launching communications satellites and other payloads into orbit for more than 30 years. It’s a billion-dollar business, worldwide.
But when will private companies begin to launch people into space? And how much will it cost?
Last week we saw that President Barack Obama has ordered NASA to buy launch services from private firms once the space shuttle is retired. This decision provides a solid market for the fledgling private firms that are working to develop rocket launchers capable of flying ordinary people into space.
The idea of flying tourists into space goes back to the 1980s, when NASA and the Space Transportation Association appointed a panel to examine the possibilities. I was a member of their steering committee. The panel concluded that there was a viable market for space tourism — if launchers and spacecraft of suitable safety and reliability could be developed.
Several companies are now chasing that goal. The leader among them is Virgin Galactic, a company that brought together Sir Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur who founded Virgin Airways, and Burt Rutan, designer of record-breaking, innovative aircraft.
In 2008 Rutan’s SpaceShipOne captured the $10 million Ansari X Prize by successfully flying three suborbital missions in less than a month. Branson then partnered with Rutan to form Virgin Galactic. The company is now flight-testing SpaceShipTwo, designed to carry passengers to the edge of space.
Virgin Galactic has already booked 300 suborbital flights, at $200,000 per ticket. An investment group from Abu Dhabi is putting up $280 million for a 32 percent share of the company.
These suborbital flights will take passengers about 80 miles high and give them a few minutes of near-zero gravity. But that’s only the beginning.
Other companies, such as Masten Space Systems, SpaceX (founded by Internet guru Elon Musk), AstroTech, XCOR, Armadillo Aerospace and Ad Astra Rocket Co., are developing launchers and spacecraft. Robert Bigelow, a Las Vegas real-estate magnate, has already orbited an inflatable habitat where tourists — and workers — can live in orbit. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, heads a group that is developing its own launching rocket.
Most of these companies will fail. Rockets will explode, dreams will be shattered, people will get killed. But a few of these firms will eventually become the giants of a new industry.
This sort of development has happened before, in the aircraft industry.
By the end of World War I aviation had moved from its infancy into a sort of adolescent stage. Private companies were developing new aircraft and engines, but there wasn’t a firm market that would allow these companies to grow into a major industry. The government provided a market: air mail service. It wasn’t all that much, in terms of money, but flying the air mail forced private companies and government agencies (including the Army Air Corps) to work out problems of navigation, logistics, communications — and better, more reliable, higher-performing airplanes.
Today’s global network of commercial airlines grew out of the air mail service of the 1920s and ’30s.
The Obama White House has already directed NASA to buy transportation to and from the International Space Station from private companies. This can provide a solid market for private space operations. Rocket launchers and spacecraft that are reliable and safe enough for tourist flights could grow out of this beginning.
There is opposition, both in NASA and Congress, to this “outsourcing” of launch services. NASA is a government agency and, like all government agencies, it automatically moves to protect its turf. Politicians worry that lucrative NASA contracts will be canceled, causing unemployment in their states.
I’m sure that canal men and stagecoach operators opposed the coming of the railroads, and farsighted railroad magnates dreaded the development of commercial airlines, too. But as Mark Twain famously said, “When it’s steamboat time, you steam.”
As the fledgling space-tourism companies begin to prove their vehicles are safe and reliable, more customers will come. Profits will grow. Those tickets won’t always cost $200,000 apiece.
Space tourism is on the way.
Bova, a Naples resident, is the author of more than 120 books, including “Able One,” his latest high-tech thriller. Bova’s Web site address is www.benbova.com