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updated 2/16/2006 5:54:34 PM ET 2006-02-16T22:54:34

In the last few years, personal space travel has become a far more feasible business proposition.

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But much work remains in fostering and then sustaining such an enterprise. For one, there is need not to over-promise ticket-paying customers about prospective space jaunts — adventure that will be costly for the foreseeable future and far from risk-free.

Meanwhile, passenger space travel into Earth orbit may well be accelerated by a new NASA effort to bolster the commercial orbital transportation business.

Those messages came from experts in passenger space travel taking part in the Space Technology & Applications International Forum (STAIF) being held here this week.

Derek Webber, Director of Spaceport Associates in Rockville, Maryland said that a good start has been made in making a business case for public space travel.

For one, the success of the Ansari X Prize in 2004; even at price tags in the range of $150,000 per trip, there are already waiting lists of eager folk anxious for their suborbital trip, Webber said.

“The orbital space tourism experience is, however, much harder to provide,” Webber explained.

“It is harder technically because of the higher kinetic energy trajectories that need to be flown,” Webber continued, “and it is harder commercially, because significantly fewer potential travelers will be able to afford the prices for such missions, expected to be in the order of $10 million per trip.”

Webber said that suborbital passenger travel is well on the way with groups like Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Rocketplane. “So I have turned my attention to orbital, which of course is where many of the benefits are to be found…if it can be done,” he added.

“It will be beneficial to the whole aerospace sector for a successful orbital space tourism industry to develop,” Webber reported. “It will enable new levels of cost into orbit and reliability and reusability to be obtained that will benefit all space sectors. It will generate billions of dollars in business,” he advised.

“But perhaps the most important benefits of a successful development of this sector will be through the transformational changes and insights obtained by the orbital space tourism elite as they renter everyday life after their personal journeys into space,” Webber observed.

Webber said that he is hopeful that NASA’s new effort to purchase Commercial Orbital Transportation Services — often called COTS — will stimulate orbital space tourism.

Count on COTS?
NASA has established the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas as part of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. That office is to evaluate COTS proposals.

NASA intends to enter into agreements with private industry to develop and demonstrate the vehicles, systems, and operations needed to resupply, return cargo from, and transport crew to and from a human space facility, with the International Space Station (ISS) providing the representative requirements for such a facility.

“The COTS procurement exercise is the way to do it,” Webber told SPACE.com. That is, build something to satisfy NASA needs to get U.S. astronauts up to the ISS, and then use it for orbital tourism when not being used by NASA.

“Of course, under COTS, the vehicle remains the property of the manufacturer/developer,” Webber said. It remains to be seen whether entrepreneurial outfits will get the necessary funding, when the COTS awards are announced later in the year, he said.

“NASA is actively looking at putting significant funds into promoting the commercial world ... to be able to buy these services from commercial vendors rather than have to develop and build everything ourselves,” Scott Horowitz, NASA Associate Administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, told STAIF attendees earlier this week.

A COTS solicitation was issued by NASA last month, with proposals to be turned into the space agency shortly, Horowitz added. COTS funds available spread out over several years is some $500 million, he said.

“We thought originally we’d get maybe a dozen or so people proposing to provide commercial crew and cargo transportation services,” Horowitz explained. It now appears that NASA will review some 90 different proposals in response to the competition, he added.

By purchasing commercial services to provide cargo and crew services to the ISS, Horowitz noted, the intent is that the private world will develop and operate vehicles more efficiently and more cost-effectively than NASA. That would allow the space agency to fund more research and technology necessary to carry out its exploration mandate, he said.

Lessons from adventure travel
How best to sell space and take adventure to a higher level was outlined by Jane Reifert, President of Incredible Adventures, Inc., based in Sarasota, Florida.

Reifert advised that insight about and catering to today’s adventure travelers and their dreams, desires and demographics “is critical to the expansion of the civilian space industry.”

“The individuals who will fill the space planes and space hotels of the future will bear little resemblance to the camera-toting tourists who crowd theme parks and cruise ships,” Reifert reported. “They will, however, look very much like the doctors, lawyers, computer professionals and business owners who are flying jet fighters, floating in zero-gravity and diving with sharks today.”

Reifert’s advice: “Anyone developing a civilian space enterprise should look to those who pioneered the adventure travel industry for guidance.”

Reifert spelled out a 10-point checklist on how to build a successful adventure business—a no-nonsense, down-to-Earth checklist that doubles as a primer for space tourism companies.

In Reifert’s view:

  • Hire the right front office team
  • Choose your sales force carefully
  • Know your potential customers
  • Create a unique product
  • Design great marketing materials
  • Pay attention to the legal paperwork
  • Plan for the worst case
  • Make customer service a priority.
  • Pick your agents and partners carefully.
  • Don’t make promises you aren’t sure you can keep.

“If I ever use the word safe on one of my adventures, my lawyer would slap me upside the head,” Reifert told a STAIF audience. “Everything we offer is going to be inherently risky ... and we state that over and over again.”

Space travelers have to understand that they are taking a risk ... “and it has to be one that they knowingly acknowledge,” Reifert said.

For the most part, Reifert continued, those now promoting a five-star space tourism experience are painting a rosy and optimistic picture, one that is based on thousands of flights with long lines of tourists hungry to head for space.

“But the reality is ... that might not happen,” Reifert said. Her experience is that things never quite jell as easily or as well as you think they will, urging public space travel advocates to base the business on realistic expectations.

“Nobody really knows anything,” Reifert suggested, given uncertainties in when passenger-toting spaceships are to be ready for flight, as well as the regulations that will also shape the space tourism market.

“It has to be presented as such to customers ... that they too are in this same new, brave and exciting field with you,” she said.

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