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Space Tourism: The Next Steps

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Wed Jan 19, 2005 4:48 pm
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Illustration of inflatable transhab, akin to what businessman Robert Bigelow is designing for space tourists.

spacedaily.com by Morris Jones: 2004 was a significant year for the fledgling space tourism industry, despite the fact that no fee-paying space tourist has flown in years. Events ranging from business projects to the debut of private human spaceflight have all moved the industry forward.
Eric Anderson, founder of Space Adventures, expects that 2005 will see even more progress. But sub-orbital space tourism on privately developed vehicles is still a couple of years away. Anderson spoke with SpaceDaily’s Dr Morris Jones during his most recent visit to Australia.

SpaceDaily: What were the highlights of the past year for space tourism?

EA: For the industry as a whole, clearly the three successful flights of Space Ship One was the greatest highlight. I also think that globally, the economy seems to be improving, and there seems to be more optimism in 2005 than there was at the start of 2004. I am very pleased to see that legislation regarding the licensing of sub-orbital vehicles has passed in the USA, which lays the regulatory framework for space tourism.

Additionally, the Russian Space Agency continues to support space tourist flights. Unfortunately, one of our clients was unable to fly with them this year due to medical reasons.

SD: Do you expect to see Space Ship One fly in space again?

EA: I don’t think so. I think it will end up in the National Air and Space Museum. I don’t see any reason for them to fly it again. They’ve proven their point, and it’s an historic item. But that’s just my opinion.

SD: Richard Branson has been very public about entering the space tourism market. What do you think of this?

EA: If they end up building these vehicles, I would be wildly supportive. Space Adventures would look forward to buying flights from them as one of several potential vehicles we could work with.

SD: The American businessman Robert Bigelow (founder of Bigelow Aerospace) has announced plans for inflatable space station modules and a major cash prize for developing an orbital vehicle. What do you think of his projects?

EA: From what I know, which is not too detailed, Robert Bigelow’s efforts are very exciting. It’s to be much commended that he’s going to launch a test of his habitat module in the near future. This will bring down the cost of building these structures, and probably improve the safety too. It goes along with efforts to bring down the cost of transportation to space.

SD: The space tourism legislation was passed by Congress at the eleventh hour, and some people thought it would not pass at all. Was this a problem?

EA: There were certainly concerns that the legislation wouldn’t pass, but there were also concerns that the new security bill after 9/11 wouldn’t pass. That’s just the typical modus operandi of the US Congress. Everything happens in the last five minutes. I was fairly optimistic about it.

SD: What were the major problems in getting the bill to pass?

EA: The biggest problem was an argument regarding passenger safety and the assumption of risk. Certain parties wanted operators to assess all risk. Others thought that was unrealistic, and that passengers should bear their own risk, at least for the first eight years of operations. Luckily the latter view won out. So we were on solid ground in terms of not over-administering the industry for the first few years.

SD: How would you assess the risks of operating in this industry?

EA: It’s in the financial, political and general interests of every manufacturer to make the safest vehicles possible. Nobody wants to kill their customers. At the same time, it’s impossible to innovate without taking risks. It’s up to the vehicle companies themselves to evaluate their level of risk and disclose that to the customer, then fly time after time to reduce the risk. That’s the only way we can get better. As long as it’s managed properly, there’s no other choice.

Risk models don’t mean much unless you can compare them to empirical data from actual flights, but I know that the sub-orbital designers are currently making their vehicles safer than other spacecraft that have flown before them. But we won’t know what the real failure rates are until many years from now.

SD: When will the first sub-orbital passenger flights take place?

EA: Probably by late 2007. I think that Burt Rutan could have an operational vehicle ready by that time. The Russian sub-orbital vehicle should also be ready by then.

SD: Is it getting any easier to send tourists on Soyuz to the International Space Station?

EA: It seems to be getting easier to work with everyone. Our next tourist is Gregory Olsen from the USA. He will not be flying in April as originally expected, but we hope to fly him in the near future, possibly as soon as October 2005.

SD: Has there been any progress with the proposed SA-1 mission, where Space Adventures would book two of the three seats on a Soyuz launched to ISS?

EA: There’s been a lot of progress. We don’t talk about it much, but I still think this is an excellent way to operate space tourism flights. I hope we will be able to announce a specific mission at some time in 2005.

SD: Is there a unit cost saving in launching two tourists on the same vehicle?

EA: Not really. In fact, it’s probably a little more expensive, because there is no subsidy from the Russian Space Agency. Soyuz flights are in excess of $40 million, but there are other advantages to the private mission. You can stay longer, carry more gear, do more things, and launch when you want. You’re not on the government’s schedule, so it’s worth doing it despite the extra costs.

SD: After Gregory Olsen, do you have any more tourists waiting to fly to ISS?

EA: We do. There are a couple of others whom we hope to confirm in the months ahead.

SD: A new administrator is about to be installed at NASA. What should he do?

EA: The new head of NASA should strongly pursue and implement the President’s plan for space exploration, and actively support the development of a commercial human spaceflight industry.

SD: Have you had any more contact with the Chinese about their Shenzhou vehicle?

EA: Contact has been minimal, but there has been a bit more. They went through 2004 without a single Shenzhou launch. They need to show that they can sustain a program and not just do one-off flights. They need to launch several times per year. Having said that, they are to be congratulated for their success.

SD: How do you feel about developing new orbital vehicles?

EA: I think it’s possible, but not in the near-term. It’s a big step to go from sub-orbital to orbital. It may take 15 or 20 years for this to happen. Let’s assume that we have operational sub-orbital space tourism in the next three to four years. In the years after that, there will be money coming in to invest in new systems. But I think the next step will be point to point transportation for 2,000 to 3,000 miles, such as going from New York to London. That’s halfway between sub-orbital and orbital in terms of energy, but each step gets exponentially harder. If you look at it realistically, it’s going to take a fair amount of time to develop a new orbital vehicle.

SD: Is there any point in developing private space stations if it’s going to take so long to build a new orbital spacecraft?

EA: Well, Soyuz could go there. Russia could produce more of them, but it won’t get cheaper. In fact, the cost of labour in Russia is going up, so the cost will increase.

SD: Is there enough room in the market for all of the current players?

EA: I think so. I think the market is a billion dollar plus, even now. But these are early days. If you asked the general public about space tourism now, they’re still not really familiar with the idea. It’s passed the credibility level with early adopters, but a lot of unknown quantities remain for the general public. There’s room for a lot of people as the industry grows.

SD: Do you expect to fly in space yourself in the near future?

EA: I do. I want to volunteer for one of our test flights.

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