Considering the future of space tourism.
In February 1994, the American Society of Civil Engineers held a conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to talk about holidays in space.
Architects and engineers presented beautiful models of orbiting hotels, lunar settlements and passenger-carrying shuttles. Everyone was convinced that the required technologies were perfectly feasible. They were equally convinced when financiers warned them that there was no civilian market for such expensive dreams.
The pessimists spoke too soon. There are indeed many people willing and able to pay for a taste of space.
In 1998, Virginia-based Space Adventures negotiated with Russia's cash-poor Star City cosmonaut training complex to provide holidaymakers with $10,000 weekends of dressing up in spacesuits and clambering aboard training simulator capsules. Customers also signed up for flights aboard 'vomit comets', jet planes flown in a stomach-churning sequence of ascents and dives to create brief periods of weightlessness.
Costliest holiday ever
The Star City tour is just the economy range of the Russian menu. On 28 April, 2001, American financier Dennis Tito flew into orbit aboard a Soyuz capsule, having invested $20m of his own cash in the mission. His trip was booked through Space Adventures, and the hotel at the end of his flight wasn't some luxury villa by the sea. It was the International Space Station. A year later, South African-born Internet entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth took the same ride.
No one expects many repeat performances at those prices. The future of 'space tourism' will rely on bringing ticket prices down to thousands rather than millions of dollars, so that many reasonably well-off people can afford it, rather than just a handful of multimillionaires.
In January 2002, the respected polling company Zogby International telephoned 450 Americans with annual incomes above $250,000. Seven-in-one hundred said they would pay $20m for a two-week orbital flight, but a startling one-in-five were happy to contemplate $100,000 just for a short suborbital trip above the Earth's atmosphere, during which the 'space' phase of the journey might last no more than five or ten minutes. There was indeed a market for personal access to space. What was lacking was a vehicle to fulfil that demand.
The big prize
The media likes to think that space tourists must be dilettantes with more money than sense. In fact, they tend to be highly driven professionals involved in the technology sector, with a deep-seated conviction that space is important for human progress. Nothing illustrates this better than the story of the Ansari X Prize.
Anousheh Ansari spoke no English when she emigrated to the United States from Iran in 1984 at the age of 16, but she anticipated that living there would help her realise her dream of becoming an astronaut.
She studied electrical engineering at George Mason University, then co-founded a business, Telecom Technologies. By 1996 it was one of the fastest-growing technology enterprises in its hometown of Dallas, Texas. Meanwhile, Ansari never lost her fascination for space. "As a child, I looked at the stars and dreamed of space travel," she says. "As an adult, I understand that the only way this dream will become a reality is with the participation of private industry and the creative passion of smart entrepreneurs."
Backing this philosophy with hard cash, Ansari teamed up with Space Adventures co-founder Peter Diamandis, an entrepreneur whose passion for space is matched by an ability to think afresh about the marketing aspects of rocketry.
"While cost thresholds are a matter of personal perception, I believe that we will see frequent, regular, low-cost personal space travel within five years," he says. His achievements over the last decade have made that vision a distinct possibility.
In May 1996, Diamandis and a group of business leaders held a gala dinner in St Louis, Missouri, to celebrate Charles Lindbergh's 1927 first flight across the Atlantic, funded by an earlier generation of patrons from that city. They were competing back then for a $25,000 prize from New York hotelier Raymond Orteig. That was a considerable sum of money in 1927. Could a similar prize persuade modern industry to develop affordable human space flight?
With this expectation, Diamandis organised a $10m prize fund to reward the first suborbital passenger-carrying vehicle to reach 100km altitude: the realm internationally agreed as the edge of space. The Ansari family subsequently underwrote a major proportion of the funding, and the Ansari X Prize was born.
In September 2006, Ansari achieved her most cherished personal ambition, flying into orbit aboard a Soyuz and spending eight days aboard the International Space Station.
Winning the prize
Twenty-six companies took up the challenge. A fascinating array of proposed designs included delta-winged space planes, eerie capsules shaped like seed pods, and even a machine with rocket-powered helicopter blades. Some competitors built real hardware, while most lacked the resources to deliver much beyond concept artworks and unpowered mock-ups. But the seeds for a new industry were sown. One company, Mojave-based Scaled Composites, took a clear lead from the start. SpaceShipOne, designed by Scaled Composites' exceptionally experienced chief, Burt Rutan, scooped the X Prize on October 4, 2004, earning back half the $20m discreetly invested in the vehicle by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
Just as Lindbergh's flight stimulated a transatlantic air industry with incredible speed back in the late 1920s, Rutan's team has triggered a similar gold rush at the dawn of the 21st century. Two days after SpaceShipOne's final qualifying flight, Richard Branson revealed that his Virgin Group was ready to finance SpaceShipOne's much larger successor. More than $100m was allocated to develop a 'Virgin Galactic' suborbital space liner, with six passenger seats, flying from a custom-built space port in New Mexico.
For Branson, space is a business opportunity and a personal vision. "Some day, children around the world will wonder why we ever thought space travel was just a dream we read about in books or watched, with longing, in Hollywood movies," he explained while announcing his venture to a startled world. "If we can make space fun, the rest will follow. This is a business that has no limits."
SpaceShip One's success, and Branson's plans for Virgin Galactic, have boosted the prospects of other companies.
Most of them will never leave the ground, but one to watch will be Blue Origin, a Seattle company backed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. Just like Paul Allen, he can raise the kind of money needed for a serious project. Europe's dominant aerospace company, EADS Astrium, is also developing a suborbital ship, although the company stresses that it would prefer to build the hardware while leaving its commercial exploitation to others.
A place to visit
Getting off the ground is only half the story. There is a limit to how far space tourism can progress when there is nothing to do except fly up and down.
Las Vegas businessman Robert Bigelow, founder of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, wants to create the first private space station. He will use inflatable modules based on designs licensed from Nasa.
In 2006, Bigelow successfully tested an unmanned prototype in orbit, with help from a Russian Dniepr booster rocket. A second and larger test module flew just as successfully a few months later. Bigelow expects to offer four-week stays in orbit aboard his 'Sundancer' module for a modest $12m per person. Governments and corporations can also lease Sundancer for research work conducted by crews of up to four astronauts. A full year's privileged access will cost $88m: hefty, but still a fraction of the costs associated with the International Space Station.
Bigelow is the first person to admit that "you must not count on any business model that is too dependent on Nasa". Spreading his risks and widening his potential market, he is promoting Sundancer to 50 different countries, many of whom will welcome the chance to fly their own astronauts without having to build an entire space infrastructure.
Bigelow's other risk-reduction strategy is to phrase his project using terminology that does not frighten his Earth-bound investors. "The benefit of the current business plan is that we have couched it in terms that any real estate investor knows," he says.
All he is doing is selling space in space rather than on the ground.
The courtesy shuttle
Sundancer will be ready to fly in 2011. Everything now depends on the passenger craft that delivers customers to Sundancer and brings them home again.
Development of a genuinely reusable orbital transporter remains the last great unconquered space frontier for our generation. This is a much greater challenge than merely dipping a ship's nose above the atmosphere for a few minutes, Virgin Galactic-style, before it plunges back to Earth.
Bigelow is taking the X Prize idea one step further by offering a $50m reward for the first company to reach orbit with a passenger ship. Hedging his bets, he is also negotiating with the Lockheed Martin/Boeing joint venture, United Launch Alliance (ULA) to purchase expendable Atlas V rockets with a proven flight record. The challenge will be to 'human-rate' the Atlas and integrate it with a crew capsule of some kind. Lockheed is well prepared to investigate this. It is the prime contractor for Nasa's next-generation crew capsule, the Orion.
The main doubt clouding this bright new horizon is the sheer number of flights that will be needed to make space tourism pay, and how those flights will add to the noise and pollution already dumped by the aviation industry into our fragile skies. Environmentalists have been caught off-guard by the speed of recent developments. They will not stay silent for long.