BILL READ reports on the RAeS Third European Space Tourism conference
Until relatively recently, the chances of a private citizen flying into space was just a dream. However, such dreams may soon become reality as commercial companies begin flying their own spaceships carrying civilians to the edge of space and beyond. To begin with, such an experience will only be attainable by wealthy individuals but, as the market develops, costs are expected to come down. However, sub-orbital flights are only the beginning of what is being predicted as a new era in space transport.
On Tuesday 19 June around 150 delegates attended the RAeS’s third conference on space tourism to hear presentations from commercial space transport companies, space port operators, trainers, regulators and financial companies, as well as people who have been into space and those who hope to go there in the future.
In the 50 years since the first Sputnik satellite launch and Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight, access to space has been achieved mainly through government-funded projects – led by USA and Russia. However, in recent years, this situation has begun to change and it is now private enterprise that is beginning to take the lead. “We stand on the brink of reaching out beyond the Earth,” says Geoff Busswell from the RAeS. “At present 530 people have flown into space. Soon this will increase to 7,000.”
There is no lack of demand for a trip into space. Currently 500 people have signed up for the ‘space tourist’ experience. “When space tourism was first proposed, it was not always taken seriously,” said Andrew Nelson, ceo and vp of business development at spaceship builders XCOR Aerospace. “However, recent progress towards developing actual working systems has meant that the idea no longer has the ‘giggle factor’.” The business opportunities generated from space tourism could be huge and Nelson talked about how he expected space tourism to enable a marketplace that could be worth up to $1,000bn.
There is already a ‘tour operator’ for space tourists – Space Adventures – which sells trips into space. Space Adventures has already organised seven private citizens to go to the International Space Station – the fourth of whom, Anousheh Ansaris, spoke about her experiences at the conference. The next Space Adventures tourist is expected to fly to the ISS in 2014 after more Russian Soyuz capsules have been built (there is currently no room to carry tourists, as Russia is using them to transport NASA astronauts unable to use the retired Space Shuttle. In 2010 Space Adventures signed an exclusive marketing agreement with reusable rocket manufacturer Armadillo Aerospace.
Space Adventures’ president Tom Shelley explained how the company was currently marketing a range of space tourist options, starting with flights in a zero-G aircraft, suborbital flights up to 100km above the Earth, orbital flights of between ten to 12 days in space and even a programme to take passengers around the far side of the Moon. For the sub-orbital flights, Shelley quoted prices of between $100,000-200,000, $50m for two weeks in space and $150m to go around the Moon.
Want a lift into space, sir?
A number of private companies are developing plans for manned access to space, three of which were represented at the conference. Currently leading the field in the race to become the first sub-orbital operator is Virgin Galactic which is currently in the final stages of certifying its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane in the US. Nearly 500 people have paid a total of £40m in deposits on the $200,000 price to take Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital ride. The company’s commercial director Stephen Attenborough gave details of the latest progress on the project. The carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo has now nearly completed testing with over 80 flights while the eight-seat rocket-powered suborbital spaceship SpaceShipTwo has made 20 unpowered flights, including tests of its unique ‘feathering’ re-entry system. Meanwhile, the rocket motor that will power SS2 has also conducted ten test firings. The next stage is to install the rocket motor onto SS2 and fly it unpowered to see how it performs with the weight of the engine.
After that, the next stage will be to begin rocket-powered supersonic flights, using an experimental launch flight permit recently issued by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). “We’ve now proved that space travel is not just for governments,” concludes Attenborough. “Government funding has provided a good start to the space industry but they are not the best at developing it. Once private enterprise gets involved, you get more innovation. We believe that space matters and see ourselves at vanguard of change.”
The most ambitious plans, however, were announced by Isle of Man-based Excalibur Almaz. Company chairman Arthur (Art) Dula explained how the company intends to utilise existing proven Russian-built space hardware to offer trips beyond Earth orbit and even as far as around the Moon. The company currently owns four reusable return vehicle (RRV) crew capsules and two large Salyut-class spacecraft which it will use to provide platforms for manned space missions as well as microgravity scientific experiments for governments, businesses and academic institutions. Art was keen to emphasis that his company’s plans are based on existing space systems and designs, including a spacecraft capable of Earth re-entry and a proven emergency escape system.
Excalibur Almaz plans to use a rocket (possibly a Russian Proton, although there have also been informal talks with US-based SpaceX about using its Falcon 9 rocket) to lift the RRV into low-Earth orbit where it will dock with the Salyut from where they can be flown into deep space for scientific missions or orbit the Moon. “The people we will take around the Moon will not be space tourists but private expedition members,” says Dula . “The adventures we’re offering are more like expeditions. We’ve also got business plans for unmanned research, human transportation, cargo delivery and return and chartered space exploration.”
The only company to quote a fixed date for its first flights was Space Expedition Corporation (SXC – formerly Space Expedition Curaçao) which claims that it will begin flights in 2014 using an XCOR Lynx reusable rocket plane to fly up into space from the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao. The company has already sold 175 tickets at a cost of $95,000 each. XCOR is developing the rocket-powered Lynx, which can take-off and land from a conventional runway. The Mark 1 version of the Lynx can ascend up to 60km above the Earth while the Mark 2 will be able to reach altitudes beyond 100km. First flight tests of the Lynx are expected before the end of this year with the first production models to appear by the end of 2014.
As well as carrying passengers, the new space transport operators also have plans to carry other cargoes – such as small satellites. The spaceships could also be used as platforms for scientific experiments as well as other as yet unthought of applications. “It’s like when the Internet was first introduced,” says Andrew Nelson of XCOR. “We don’t know all the potential applications yet.” Ben Droste from SXC was keen to explain how his company already has plans that go beyond space tourism. “The time has come for commercial space travel and transport,” he says. “We are laying the foundation for superfast environmentally friendly sub-orbital travel.” Once it has commenced operations, Space Expedition plans to operate multiple missions each day for passengers and scientific research missions. Commercial airline KLM is also taking an interest in the potential of the project with the possibilities of developing superfast transport across the world.
Speed vs safety
A frequently asked question from the floor was ‘when will the first flights start’ – to which the space ship operators replied: ‘when we’re ready and when it’s safe’ with few willing to commit themselves to actual dates. The issue of safety in space tourist flights is one of vital importance with all the private spaceship operators in agreement that one accident would have a negative effect on all of them. “Safety is going to be paramount,” states Tom Shelley of Space Adventures. “We cannot build the market if we operate in an unsafe manner. We need to balance delivering the space experience with risk.”
Space tourism is not just about the private operators developing space systems but also about all the support industries that will be needed. Already, companies are offering pre-mission training for space tourists so that they will know the effect of g-force before an actual mission.
Keith George, chief technical officer at the NASTAR Center near Philadelphia explained how the facility is already being used to train future space tourists. In March, SXC’s space tourist customers began undergoing training in the Desdemona flight simulator trainer at Soesterburg in The Netherlands, as well as in an L-39 Albatross jet trainer.
Spaceport business incubators
Meanwhile, other companies are developing plans for spaceports which they hope will not only serve as bases for space operators but will, like conventional airports, also attract support businesses to the location. Virgin Galactic senior program manager Mark Butler described how the new Spaceport America base in New Mexico, while initially designed for SS2 flights could be used by other while Karin Nilsdotter, ceo of Spaceport Sweden described her plans to create a new space hub based at Kiruna 200km north of the arctic circle which would serve not just as a tourist destination but also as an ‘incubator’ for businesses such as spaceflight training, research, flight testing and development.
While progress on developing the hardware for space tourism has been proceeding rapidly, the pace of change on the regulations governing their operation and safety has been much slower to develop. This has partly been through inertia and partly because it is difficult to define rules for a market that is still developing. The US has developed its first set of rules while, in Europe, only Sweden has made much progress on its own space regulations. There is still debate over whether the spacecraft should be treated as aircraft or spacecraft and at what point above the Earth space can be said to begin.
Space travel for all?
This is only the beginning. Future technological breakthroughs could enable the cost of entry into space to fall so that space travel becomes a possibility for ordinary people. Although the current cost of a ticket into space is currently only attainable by the very rich, this situation may start to change. “Some people say that space tourism is just for wealthy people but I say it’s the opposite,” declares Andrew Nelson. “They are paving the road for the rest of us.”
Other speakers predicted that larger space tourism ships may be built with the ability to carry 20-30 passengers. Such space ships may not just orbit around the Earth but visit near-Earth objects or orbit around the Moon. Another possibility is that there could also be privately owned space ships – similar to current biz-jets owned by individuals.
A more detailed article on the Space Tourism Conference will appear in the August 2012 edition of Aerospace International covering not just private space tourism operators and support industries but also the implications for generating new business but also regulatory, legal and insurance implications.