The welcome sign is up at Mojave, Calif. — the proud home of SpaceShipOne, the piloted craft that achieved the first privately bankrolled suborbital flight.
Last year’s notable suite of runs to the edge of space by the rocket plane has raised expectations of a money-making, booming market for passenger-carrying spaceliners.
Taking the lead in the space travel business is Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic spaceliner operation. It is based on a much larger, multiseat version of SpaceShipOne. Price per passenger seat: $200,000.
Suborbital spaceships not only can whisk tourists to the outskirts of the atmosphere, they can have other advantages too. As spaceports are planted in spots around the planet, there is already chatter about a new form of "point-to-point" express-mail package delivery.
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Still, the promise of big-dollar markets for public space travel remains front and center. A study done by a think tank a few years ago underscored that fact. It reported that the overall space tourism market could generate revenues in excess of a billion dollars per year in about a decade and a half. A big chunk of that cash is expected to come from suborbital space tourism.
Turn up the volume
"The biggest difficulty we’ve faced in the space business is the lack of volume," said Peter Diamandis, chairman and founder of the X Prize Foundation, based in Santa Monica, Calif.
Diamandis said that volume brings increased learning, safety, robustness and decreased cost. "The potential for hundreds and thousands of flights driven by the personal spaceflight market will end up benefiting the rest of the space market, from military to satellite launch," he told Space.com.
As more and more people take part in personal spaceflight, Diamandis added, there will be a ripple effect in other sectors. "We are likely to see a decrease in insurance rates as the base of insurable launches increases, a decrease in spaceport range costs, a decrease in materials and components, and a larger skilled workforce."
The bottom line for Diamandis: "Everyone wins."
The budding suborbital and follow-on orbital space travel marketplace has sparked the need for training of businesses and individuals.
That’s the belief of George Tyson, chief executive officer of the Orbital Commerce Project Inc. of Oviedo, Fla. He is developing a school devoted to the training of personnel to take part in the commercial human spaceflight industry.
"Part of this training involves educating the general public," Tyson said. Regarding the market for passenger space travel, don’t expect an immediate rush of folks trying to get to the ticket counter, he predicted.
"As with any new industry, it will start slow," Tyson noted. "The ‘early adopters’ who can afford the initial trips will pave the way for future tourists. Once a company begins to fly tourists and shows a profit, outside investment will flow more freely into the industry."
People making money will accelerate entry to market of new firms, Tyson suggested, providing the impetus for the lowering of prices and increased innovation.
"I predict that we will see orbital tourism three to five years after the first suborbital tourist flight and actual hotels, laboratories … in orbit one to two years after that. A commercial moon base would not be far behind. In other words, I see the human race taking the first steps in becoming a true spacefaring race by the end of this decade," Tyson said.
Freefall fanatic: a strapping market?
While the dawn of a spacefaring race may be close at hand, the projected $200,000 fare suggested by Virgin Galactic for a few minutes of suborbital weightlessness does raise the question: Just how large is the freefall fanatic market?
According to Jane Reifert, president of Incredible Adventures Inc., headquartered in Sarasota, Fla., "overpromising" can come back and bite you in the backside. She admits being on a bandwagon of urging civilian flight operators to be frugal with their promises.
"Every time I see an article mentioning the amount of zero-gravity one will experience during a suborbital flight, I cringe," Reifert said. "I can imagine people placing deposits on $200,000-plus flights, thinking they’ll be able to float around like participants on an aircraft that provides a zero-gravity experience. In reality, given the proposed size of the various suborbital vehicles being developed and safety constraints, participants will be required to stay strapped in their seats."
That does not mean the weightlessness won’t be a unique and incredible experience. It will, Reifert quickly added. "It just may be a huge disappointment if it’s not what they've been properly prepared to expect."
As the name of Reifert’s company suggests, they are in the business of giving adventurers healthy doses of high speed in fighter jets, off-the-wall weightlessness onboard parabolic diving airplanes, as well as excursions to the edge of space.
Reifert argues that the best way to market civilian space opportunities might be to highlight the "Christopher Columbus" or explorer angle.
"The spirit of adventure and sense of the unknown should be highlighted. A suborbital company that positions itself as an airline may be unintentionally inflating expectations," Reifert said. Passengers have come to expect airline flights to take off and land on schedule and deliver a degree of predictability. At least initially, space travel operators should anticipate glitches and delays. Video cameras will break down and weather will wreak havoc, she said.
"When we sell space training in Russia, we are very careful to point out Star City is not Disney World, and that is what makes the experience both slightly unpredictable and uniquely incredible," Reifert concluded.
Pampering the passengers
Experts at Paragon Space Development Corp. in Tucson, Ariz., are looking into what it takes to have rubbernecking travelers enjoy a suborbital experience.
Taber MacCallum, Paragon’s chief executive office, along with Grant Anderson, vice president of engineering, sense that, for the most part, passenger spaceliner builders are deep in nuts and bolts, financing and logistics — but pay little attention to comfort and care of the commuter that will ultimately foot the bill.
They are definitely safety-conscious, but not focused on human factors, MacCallum said.
MacCallum and Anderson have pieced together a preliminary list of dos and don’ts for space travel operators to keep in mind, such as:
- Free movement in microgravity: By far the most entertaining aspect is the ability to feel your body being liberated from a two-dimensional existence to a 3-D existence. While room will be limited, the ability to float and move will be a big plus if it can be done without everyone kicking each other in the face. That takes training prior to flight in the small confines of a space vehicle.
- No bulky suits, helmets, or masks obstructing field of view or movement: The added experience that a suborbital flight gives you over a parabolic flight is the view. This may be the major objective of most tourists — to get a unique view. Astronaut wings give you bragging rights at parties, but the view is what they will remember and relate to their family and friends back home.
- Clear windows: A foggy or frosted window may be reason for passengers to want their money back. A robust and well-designed humidity/condensation control system is a must. Six to eight people breathing do put out a large amount of water that must be removed from the air.
- Low or no noise during microgravity conditions: Most people not familiar with spaceflight don’t realize how noisy a spaceship can be. Cooling pumps, fans and gas valves all contribute to the noise. This should be minimized for at least the microgravity portion of the flight.
Then there’s another sticky issue: How best to take care of the space-sick traveler.
Paragon’s MacCallum and Anderson said that active control of odors from vomiting is a must, as is rapid removal of airborne vomit.
"Paying $200,000 to dodge last night’s dinner — someone else’s — will sour the experience," MacCallum told Space.com, and would rein in any postflight enthusiastic selling to your next clients by previous clients.
Another arena for concern is how to handle bathroom breaks.
Some stopgap, backup provision for at least urination should be provided with privacy provisions needed: not a bathroom, but a curtain or other way to isolate a space traveler. Care must be taken to handle and eliminate odors quickly, MacCallum and Anderson advised.
"Despite all desires for each passenger to ‘wring themselves out’ before the flight, excitement and adrenaline tend to encourage both urination and bowel movements," MacCallum said.
Turns out, even in the unnatural realm of space — nature can call.
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