To Go Where Few Have Gone Before

August 21, 2007

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Space is for sale, so start saving now. Despite recent setbacks, the nascent commercial spaceflight industry continues to heat up. From civilian Moon trips to an Earth-orbit hotel, space tourism is booming.

In the midst of great promise and progress, private space ventures have recently had a rough go of their agenda.

During testing on SpaceShipTwo's rocket motor components, an explosion at noted aircraft designer Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites factory at the Mojave Spaceport on July 26 killed three engineers and seriously injured three others.

Like the successful flight of SpaceShipOne, the first private rocket manned by a civilian astronaut, last month's explosion marked a milestone in private spaceflight: it served as a tragic reminder that spaceflight — even in ground-based development phases — isn't easy. As New Scientist's Space blog recently remarked:

It takes a tremendous amount of energy to lift a person into space, and if that energy isn't controlled very carefully, it can be released disastrously.

Not everything worth doing is easy, though, and failures here were inevitable. United States space agency NASA had many of its own in the early days of spaceflight, from fizzled launches to the Apollo 1 fire in 1967 that killed three astronauts. Failures in private space ventures previously cost only money and equipment, not lives.

Nonetheless, developments in space tourism are taking off.

Ironically, the explosion at Scaled Composites came just days after another milestone that attracted far less attention: Northrop Grumman's announcement that it would buy the 60 percent of Scaled Composites that it didn't already own.

In June, officials for the second Lunar Lander Challenge announced the roster of this year's competitors, noting that the number jumped from four last year to nine this year. Unlike the original X PRIZE, this one has a major aerospace company's name attached to it, though it has requested to remain confidential. (The confidentiality period ends 60 days before the start of the competition, at which time the X PRIZE Foundation can publicly announce the team name.) Contestants must build prototype Landers that can simulate a trip to and from the lunar surface. The competition will be held in New Mexico in October. The winning team's purse: $2 million.

On the first of this month, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) announced its selection of a couple of design firms to work on the main terminal and hangar facility at Spaceport America, 45 miles north of Las Cruces, N.M. The winning plans were a joint effort between global engineering design firm URS Corporation and London architects Foster + Partners, which designed their home city's Millennium Bridge. The NMSA is now negotiating with the powers-that-be in New Mexico, but if the spaceport project gets the go-ahead, the company plans to unveil its plans to the world in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, NMSA officials are teasing the public with talk of a "technically complex building" that will "not only provide a dramatic experience for the astronauts and visitors, but will set an ecologically sound model for future Spaceport facilities."

If it gets the go-ahead, Spaceport America could be checking in customers for companies like Virgin Galactic that want to offer non-astronauts the chance to fly to where only a few have flown before. Orders for seats on Virgin Galactic's planned suborbital flights continue to pour in; so far, about 200 people from 30 countries have signed up to fly. During the last quarter, bookings for the $200,000-a-seat flights were double those for the same period in the preceding year.

Speaking of Galactic, Spain's Galactic Suite aims to have the first hotel in Earth orbit by 2012. Barcelona-based Galactic Suite plans to offer customers a three-day stay in the hotel for about $4 million. During that time, "guests would see the sun rise 15 times a day and use Velcro suits to crawl around their pod rooms by sticking themselves to the walls like Spiderman," Reuters reports.

Given the $6 billion price tag to develop and launch the three-bedroom hotel, it would take 1,500 customers to break even. Whether they could sell that many tickets is unclear, although Galactic Suite says there are 40,000 people in the world with enough money to do so.

"It's the bathrooms in zero gravity that are the biggest challenge," says company director and former aerospace engineer Xavier Claramunt. "How to accommodate the more intimate activities of the guests is not easy."

For now, space tourism opportunities remain limited and expensive, with only the Russian Space Agency providing transport. The price for a flight brokered by Space Adventures to the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft is now $30 million. While trips planned in 2008 and 2009 will cost $40 million, flights are fully booked until 2009.

Start saving now.

Resources

Query into Tragic Test Begins by Felix Doligosa Jr. The Bakersfield Californian, July 27, 2006

A Turning Point for Private Spaceflight? by Jeff Hecht New Scientist, July 30, 2007

NASA History: Apollo-1 by Steve Garber NASA, last updated Jan. 18, 2007

Northrop to Own SpaceShipOne Builder The Associated Press (via News Vine), July 20, 2007

X PRIZE Foundation Announces Competitors for Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge X Prize Foundation, June 20, 2007

Spaceport America Design Team Selected Spaceport America, Aug. 1, 2007

Welcome to the space hotel Galactic Suite by William Atkins iTWire, Aug. 13, 2007

Fly Me to the Moon: Space Hotel Sees 2012 Opening by Pascale Harter Reuters, Aug. 10, 2007

Int'l Space Station Ticket Price Climbs by Mike Schneider The Associated Press (via ABC News), July 18, 2007

International Space Station Welcomes American Tourist by Dacia Medina Associated Content, April 10, 2007

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