Space tourist industry bets on a dream
For some, blastoff may be right around the corner
By Michael Coren
SpaceShipOne rockets toward space in a previous test flight. The craft's designer aims to open up a new frontier by winning the X Prize.
Entrepreneurs are creating new ways of profiting from space exploration. CNN's Miles O'Brien reports.
Animation: Spacecraft separates from a turbojet.
SpaceShipOne's trial flight
(CNN) -- Can you build a business on a dream?
The space industry seems to think so. It is betting that thousands, and eventually millions, of people will line up to realize their dream of going into space -- or something like it. Engineers and entrepreneurs are racing to put the idea on solid footing with new vehicles, financial backing and a business plan.
"Its beyond the giggle factor," former NASA shuttle astronaut Rick Searfoss said. "This stuff is going to happen."
Desert spaceports and dusty workshops cluttered with rocket nozzles and airframes have sprung up across California and Canada. Dozens of companies are hoping to tap into what could be a billion-dollar business by some estimates.
"As I look at the landscape, I see some big dinosaurs," said Searfoss, who also works for Zero G Corp., which offers plane flights that reproduce weightlessness. "And you've got all these little mammals running around."
These eager new competitors put on a spectacular display this year.
SpaceShipOne, the first private manned spacecraft, blasted into space June 21, lifting off from a runway in the Mojave Desert. The craft, designed by Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites, is now a leading contender to provide sub-orbital flights for tourists, as are a handful of others such as the SpaceX Falcon and X-Cor Aerospace.
For those without a pilot's license, Zero G is offering $3,000 parabolic flights on its Boeing 727 aircraft that reproduce weightlessness. A space tourism firm, Space Adventures, is also booking reservations for future suborbital flights at $100,000 a pop -- with a hundred confirmations and counting.
What promises to make this a seminal year for private space travel is the Ansari X Prize. The $10 million award for civilian space flight could be won as soon as October. SpaceShipOne will attempt two consecutive suborbital flights, capable of carrying three people, on Wednesday, September 29, and October 4.
Over the horizon
Despite the potential of space tourism, the industry has a long way to go before it can capture the public eye -- and put fears to rest -- as commercial aviation has done. Even bullish projections say it will take at least three decades before suborbital flights are routine. Even then they will be priced between $50,000 and $100,000.
Far more difficult is the gold ring of space tourism: orbital flights. The energy required to reach orbit -- traveling 18,000 mph and at least 200 miles high -- is 50 times greater than what is necessary for suborbital flights.
Although two tourists have taken Russian rockets to the international space station (at $20 million per flight), engineers say the price of orbital flights will probably never drop far below $1 million.
So will space vacations ever be within reach of the public?
Time, money, and, most likely, the lives of people testing new spacecraft will be required to answer that question.
In the early days of air travel, backyard tinkerers and the military machines of WWII pushed technology forward, despite fatalities. Capital and energy flooded into the sector. The industry matured from barnstormers to its ubiquitous place in modern life at great cost in private and public money, as well as crashed planes.
It is unlikely space travel will require anything less.
Luke Dittrich floats in air during a Zero G flight.
"We need to be willing to take risks we were willing to at the beginning of space exploration and every other frontier," says Peter Diamandis, president of the X Prize foundation and CEO of Zero G. "We're not going to have these breakthroughs until we have a profitable industry."
But America is a different place today that it was during the barnstorming era of the early 20th century or the pioneering era of the 1960s Apollo missions. Legal liability, government regulation and uncertainty further complicate the risky nature of manned space flight.
"Serious investors, who are not enthusiasts, will not put up one dollar until these [issues] are clearly addressed," Greg Autry, a lecturer at the University of California-Irvine school of management, told CNN.
His study of the private, commercial space-launch market suggests the United States, though able to foster innovation, may not be able to muster the capital and liability protection to make commercial manned space travel a reality.
"It is highly likely to me that this business should be conducted offshore," he wrote. China or the Caribbean have less liability for such businesses.
"A country that isn't willing to accept a 1 percent fatality rate in a war is not going to accept even that in a tourism business," he added. "Venture capitalists hate undefined risks, and there is just too much here to bare."
Even NASA, which is criticized by space entrepreneurs for emphasizing safety over innovation, has a fatality rate of about 6 percent for manned space flight. Sixteen of the 274 Americans attempting to reach space have died.
Ready to go
In spite of the risk, there is clearly an unmet demand to go into space.
"It's a very frustrated market," Diamandis says.
Space Adventure says it has as many as a dozen people willing to spend $20 million to visit the space station. It already generates millions of dollars by providing flights aboard Russian MiG aircraft, as well as offering centrifuge rides and cosmonaut training.
Several marketing studies, promoted by enthusiasts, see even more potential.
An artist's image of one of the Ansari X Prize contestants, the da Vinci Project.
A report issued by Futron estimates that by 2021, more than 15,000 passengers could be making suborbital flights for about $50,000 each. That would come comfortably close to the $1 billion mark for industry revenue, not including "space component" trips such as astronaut training and Zero G's parabolic flights.
Another study by Patrick Collins, an economics professor at Azabu University in Japan, predicted even more stunning successes once suitable launch vehicles are developed.
Collins points out that Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic in 1927 sparked an explosion of interest in aviation. Ticket sales rocketed from 5,800 in 1926 to 417,000 by 1930. That could happen for space.
He presented a "feasible" space tourism scenario for 2030 that would put 5 million passengers into space per year, with an orbital population of 70,000 people involving as many as 60 co-orbital hotels.
"I don't think it's unreasonable in view of the space industry's extraordinary economic stagnation for half a century," he wrote. "The full implications of breaking out of that are going to be a revelation."