Headlines > News > \'Final frontier\' beckoning thrill-seekers

\'Final frontier\' beckoning thrill-seekers

Published by Robin on Fri Sep 16, 2005 6:34 am
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Planet Space sets sights on commercial applications

By Melanie Chambers – Business Edge, Published: 09/15/2005

Charles Lindbergh changed the way people think about air travel. Captain Ted Gow hopes he and Planet Space will be able to do the same for space travel.

Gow is one of six test pilots who has been chosen by Planet Space to accompany paying passengers on journeys into space. The London, Ont.-based company hopes to make its first trip in about two years.

“Hopefully, this might become something that everyone does in a few years or decades,” says Gow, a military pilot based at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick. He fulfils his Planet Space role on his personal leave time.

Gow and his teammates, a Russian, an American and four other Canadian astronauts, will be the first to go to space before spots are opened to the public.

An artist’s rendering of a Planet Space Canadian Arrow rocket soaring into space with three public astronauts onboard, above, while Geoff Sheerin, president and CEO of Planet Space, stands beside a V2-based Canadian Arrow, which is undergoing unpiloted rocket systems tests.
For $250,000, passengers will receive 14 days of training and 15 minutes in suborbital space, says Geoff Sheerin, president and CEO of Planet Space.

“That’s how long it took Alan Shepard, the first American astronaut, to fly into space,” Sheerin says. (Shepard’s trip took place in May 1961, the month after Yuri Gagarin of the U.S.S.R. became the first person in space.)

Sheerin, who has a background as an industrial designer, says Planet Space anticipates that its first flights will be made in about two years. The company hopes to have 2,000 passengers in its first five years of operation and generate $200 million of revenue from suborbital flights in the fifth year of operation.

Sheerin says the company’s only serious competitor is U.S.-based Virgin Galactic, which is owned by Sir Richard Branson. He adds that while Virgin Galactic’s prices are lower – $200,000 US – it is not offering extensive pre-trip training.

Space as a commercial tourism industry is the result of a contest that began in 1996, Sheerin says, when the Ansari X Prize was announced. The California-based X Prize Foundation offered $10 million to the first team that could launch above 100 kilometres twice in two weeks.

Space voyages are “all generally done by NASA and Russia – but a number of these companies shooting for the X Prize are now trying to develop the commercial side of it and get into the space tourism business,” says Paul Wiegert, a member of the physics and astronomy department at the University of Western Ontario in London.

Sheerin’s X Prize entry, Canadian Arrow, was one of the 26 teams to enter the contest in 1999. A U.S. team, SpaceShipOne, won the contest in 2004. Virgin Galactic is using the designs of SpaceShipTwo for its craft.

Although the Canadian Arrow team, which was funded by Sheerin and other investors, was not able to finish developing its rockets in time, Sheerin continued the space race.

Planet Space was formed this spring after Sheerin met a fellow space lover, Chirinjeev Kathuria, through a mutual financier friend. Kathuria, an Internet entrepreneur, was a founding director of MirCorp, the world’s first privately funded space program, which took Dennis Tito to the Mir space station in 2000.

Sheerin and Kathuria each own half of Planet Space, Sheerin says. He adds that while, so far, the Canadian government has not contributed any funds, he may pursue funding in the future.

The Canadian Space Agency said it does not comment on commercial endeavours.

The money to pursue the X Prize – about $5 million over five years for labour and parts for the rocket – came from several Canadian private investors, many of whom have stayed on to help with Planet Space’s new mission, Sheerin says.

While construction of the spacecraft has not yet started, a series of unpiloted tests of rocket systems are under way.

Planet Space has been given permission to launch rocket test flights from Cape Rich, which is on the tip of the Canadian Forces Meaford Range and Training Area on Georgian Bay.

The Canadian Arrow is modelled after the V-2 rocket that was used in the Second World War. The V-2 was also used by the United States during the early days of its space program.

“This rocket has been used thousands of times, so we know that it works,” Sheerin says.

The rocket, which is about 16 metres high, has two stages and will be able to lift three people into space. The engine is capable of 50,000 pounds of thrust, enough push for takeoff, Sheerin says.

“You’re on board the fastest manned vehicle in Canada that we know of,” he says.

The rocket will fly about 100 kilometres – roughly the distance from London to Sarnia – into the atmosphere, reaching zero gravity. Passengers will have about four minutes of weightlessness and a view of the Earth, Sheerin says.

Wiegert says the jaunt into space will be thrilling and people with deep pockets will return with bragging rights.

“It’s a very short flight and probably would be a very exciting ride, but it’s not like you’re going to learn a lot about space,” he says.

“It’s like riding an airplane. You don’t really learn a lot about the Earth’s atmosphere and airplanes.”

But even if people do not learn the specifics of space flight, the endeavour will spark their interest in space, Sheerin says.

At the Canadian Arrow’s first event in London, Sheerin says he was stunned by something a little boy said to him. “He said: ‘I want to be a Canadian spaceship designer.’ “I just about fell over because those are words that probably haven’t been spoken since the 1950s,” Sheerin says.

“That dream has fallen away from our culture, and, here’s the neat part, all day long the same thing happened.”

If the trip into space isn’t thrilling enough, Planet Space is also looking into a new type of adventure sport – space diving. Passengers would leave the spacecraft during re-entry and return by parachute.

“There’s a whole portion of the population (adventure seekers) – that if we didn’t have those people we probably wouldn’t have made it out of Africa,” Sheerin says.

He also says space diving could potentially save lives.

If the Columbia space shuttle had an escape route it might have meant there were survivors.

Planet Space is currently discussing the possibility of a reality series based on the inaugural voyage, Sheerin says.

“We can’t go into details, as people are still looking at it … but it will be like the early space flight all over again.”

(Melanie Chambers can be reached at chambers@businessedge.ca)

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