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Space Future has been on something of a hiatus of late. With the concept of Space Tourism steadily increasing in acceptance, and the advances of commercial space, much of our purpose could be said to be achieved. But this industry is still nascent, and there's much to do. this space.
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P Collins, 2003, "Growing Popular Interest in Space Tourism: Challenge and Opportunity for Space Agencies", IAF paper no. IAC-03-LBN.1.08.
Also downloadable from popular interest in space tourism challenge and opportunity for space agencies.shtml

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Growing Popular Interest in Space Tourism: Challenge and Opportunity for Space Agencies
Recent progress towards realising private passenger space flights has attracted great popular interest. By demonstrating the very low costs possible, while space agencies have done nothing to reduce the cost of space travel since Gagarin, this activity is stimulating demand for change. As awareness spreads that the development of space tourism is the most economically valuable opportunity for the space industry, how space agencies respond is becoming critical to their future.

The April 18th roll-out of "SpaceShipOne" and "White Knight", Scaled Composites Inc's low-cost, reusable, sub-orbital, passenger-carrying launch system, was the subject of cover stories in Aviation Week & Space Technology [1, 2], Popular Science [3], Wired [4] and other magazines, and many newspaper articles. As the vehicle's test flight programme progressed steadily, with free flight of SpaceShipOne on August 7th [5] and testing of its re-entry configuration on August 27th, expectations are growing that we may see the first ever private flight to space on the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' world-changing, December 17th 1903 flight. If these expectations are fulfilled, there is likely to be an explosion of interest around the world in the feasibility of private passenger space flight.

The great popularity of this subject was shown earlier by Dennis Tito's April 2001 orbital flight on the 40th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic flight - the first time a private citizen paid for a flight to space. The wide and deep popular interest in Tito's experience confirmed the results of market research carried out in several countries since 1993, as summarised in [6, 7]. This shows clearly that the majority of the public, both women and men, young and old, in all cultures, are fascinated by the idea of being able to travel to space themselves. However, to date, OECD nations' space agencies have not considered it their responsibility to develop the technology required to realise space tourism, or even to study its feasibility. Of the approximately $25 billion/year that space agencies currently spend, almost none is used in ways that advance the realisation of passenger space travel.

Commercial space activities today are essentially limited to communications, broadcasting and observation satellites. However, declining commercial demand for such satellites is leading to contraction of the commercial space industry, and to the need to develop new space markets if the space industry is to grow. Since there is no other space activity that offers greater potential for growth, space agencies' anti-space tourism stance is growing increasingly untenable.


Perhaps the most striking fact about Tito's flight was that it revealed beyond any argument that the cheapest and safest way to travel to space is to use the venerable Soyuz rocket - essentially the same rocket that carried Yuri Gagarin to orbit 40 years earlier. OECD space agencies have spent approximately $1 trillion since 1961 (measured in current $), but without reducing the cost of getting to space at all. This reveals clearly that space agencies have not been trying to reduce the cost of getting to space; consequently the widely-used argument against space tourism: "If low-cost access to space was possible, Nasa would have already developed it" is based on a false assumption. Space agencies do not know how low the cost of passenger space flight could fall, because they have not studied the possibility.

Tito's flight having revealed the stagnation of space flights costs over 40 years, Scaled Composites has revealed the potential for cost reduction by applying some of the technological progress of the past four decades. The development and test-flight program of "SpaceShipOne" will have cost less than OECD space agencies spend every 12 hours - or about 0.1% of what they spend each year. In addition, its cost per flight is estimated to be $80,000, that is, between 1/100 and 1/1,000 of the cost of the first US space flight, the short sub-orbital flight by Alan Shepard in 1961.

These two concrete steps towards realising space tourism suggest strongly that the cost of access to space as performed by space agencies is orders of magnitude higher than it needs to be. As further evidence of this, Nasa is currently proposing to spend $14 billion to develop an expendable capsule of comparable capability to the Apollo capsule 40 years earlier (though possibly carrying more passengers) [8]. This vehicle would have a cost/passenger many times higher than Soyuz and would have no economic value. But space agencies' role has become primarily the political one of defending "national champion" aerospace companies, which has led to the economic stagnation of the space industry, and prevented the growth of space tourism as an innovative new field of industry.

Space agencies' exclusive focus on using expendable rockets to launch satellites and operate a space station has led them to ignore economic reality: there is only very limited demand for satellites, and far too little to justify space agencies' massive cumulative expenditure. Consequently, unless they accept the need to reduce costs as far as technology allows, and to investigate space tourism as being the only activity that offers to link the economic energy of consumer spending to space development, space agencies' role in the future development of space is likely to shrink progressively. However, to do this will require institutional change.


Established during the Cold War to use taxpayers' funds for a variety of government purposes, OECD nations' space agencies have not to date considered it their responsibility to study the feasibility of space tourism, nor to develop the technology required to realise it. Indeed, led by Nasa, they have actively opposed it, and have refused all but minimal research funding: the then administrator of Nasa even made vigorous public efforts, supported by senior staff at Esa, to prevent Dennis Tito from flying to visit the Russian sector of the orbiting " International Space Station". However, it was reported that 80% of the US public supported Tito in this matter, as might have been expected in view of the popularity of space travel among the general public revealed by market research.

It is important to note that the OECD space agencies' anti-space tourism stance is demonstrably contrary to their statutory responsibilities; for example, Nasa is required by US federal law to "..encourage to the maximum extent possible the fullest commercial use of space", as explained in detail in [10]. However, this objective has long been treated as secondary to political goals.

If the business of launching commercial satellites was flourishing, space agencies could perhaps claim some justification for their anti-space tourism stance. However, the recent decline of commercial demand for satellites has led to rapid contraction of the space industry, of which the annual revenues are now barely 2% of the $1 trillion of cumulative expenditure made by OECD space agencies to date. Even if the probability of passenger space travel developing into a profitable new industry was estimated to be only 1%, or even 0.1%, it would still be clearly justified to invest substantially in investigating its feasibility. This would be a desirable use of some of the approximately $25 billion that the agencies spend every year on space activities which are neither profitable nor lead to growth of commercial space activities. In summary, space agencies' negative stance is not economically justifiable; it is based on political calculation.

Space agencies' reluctance in this matter is due to political obstacles to the innovation needed to aid the development of passenger space travel. By comparison with profit-seeking companies, government organisations are more concerned with maintaining a consistent public image than with the economic implications of their behaviour. They are consequently particularly concerned to avoid admitting mistakes, such as having developed technical systems with little economic value. By contrast, companies do what is most profitable. If this requires abandoning expensive systems, so be it; in-house defenders may prolong the use of an obsolete system for some time, but eventually economic reality overcomes "political" considerations, or the company fails.

Reasons for space agencies' resistance to change are discussed in [11]. Among other factors, their leaders face strong incentives to be seen to be continuing "business as usual", and they fear that, if space agencies work to encourage space tourism they would be criticised for not having changed direction sooner. This leads them to wait for political direction, which can come only from politicians who consider it in their electoral interest to tackle the issue. However, since the space industry is much smaller than most commercial industries, and the general public is largely unaware of the potential currently being wasted, reform of space agencies is not seen as an electorally important issue. Space agencies' viewpoint is so widely distributed in the media that the potential economic and social benefits of the new activity of passenger travel are not yet sufficiently persuasive to bring about the necessary change in the political committees which decide space policy and budgets. However, Dennis Tito, Scaled Composites and others are changing this situation progressively; December 17th 2003 may be a watershed.

From the legal point of view, space agencies already have sufficient justification to contribute greatly to the development of space tourism, since it clearly falls within their existing legal responsibility to encourage the commercial use of space. Furthermore, they could contribute in a variety of ways which are closely related to their existing fields of work, including through appropriate research, technology development, education, and legal activities, as discussed elsewhere, including in Nasa's own positive report on the subject [12]. Table 1 lists some of the topics which current space research organisations could valuably work on.

Life Sciences

  • Short-term orbital stays by average people
  • Tests of full range of anti-emetics
  • Treatments of minor ailments in micro-gravity


  • Development of reusable rocket operation and maintenance procedures
  • Design of rockets for ease of maintenance
  • Reusable rocket engine reliability increase
  • Reusable rocket engine noise suppression
  • Cost reduction


  • Passenger vehicle size optimisation
  • Passenger vehicle optimisation for different routes
  • Orbital propellant production and handling

Orbital Accommodation

  • Large windows
  • Micro-gravity plumbing
  • Facilities for large numbers of guests
  • Micro-gravity interior design
  • Cost reduction through mass production
  • Rotating facilities

Legal/Insurance Issues

  • Collaboration with aviation
  • Implementation of liability for damage in space
  • Implementation of space salvage laws
  • Insurance industry contribution to vehicle design
  • Space building standards

Table 1: Space tourism fields for research

However, judging from the fact that, to date, no government space agency has provided more than minimal support for space tourism-related research, the resistance within space agencies is still far stronger than those favouring such efforts. This was illustrated by the recent cutting of Esa's planned expenditure on research towards reusable launch vehicles to just 8 million Euros/year - compared to several billion Euros [13]. Funding for work on vehicles designed to provide sub-orbital passenger spcae flights remains zero.

This behaviour well illustrates the continuing relevance of Niccolo Machiavelli's famous warning from 1500: "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in introducing a new order of things. An innovator has as enemies all the people who were doing well under the old order, and only half-hearted defenders in those who hope to profit from the new."

It may well be that the required change of policy requires a change of leadership, and will depend on leadership from the politicians who decide space agencies' budgets. Without the progress of private space activities exemplified by Dennis Tito's flight and recent progress towards low-cost sub-orbital space flights, such a change would probably still take a long time. Nasa's traveling exhibition "Starship 2040" which shows the possibility of a single small module in orbit for use for tourism seems sadly representative of space agencies' views.

However, this situation is changing progressively as a result of two ongoing trends. The worsening economic situation is increasing pressure on government budgets, and increasing the need to develop new industries to reduce world-wide unemployment. In this context it is highly desirable that those responsible for economic policy be made aware of the economic potential that is not being realised by space agencies.

Second, the recent growth of private space tourism activities is educating the public about these economically very valuable new space activities that could be developed for a fraction of the cost of space agencies' budgets. As can be expected, politicians are beginning to respond to this: for example, on July 24 a joint meeting of US Senate and Congressional subcommittees was held to ensure that the FAA develops regulations that encourage rather than hinder the growth of commercial sub-orbital space travel services.


A major potential benefit for space agencies of devoting resources to aiding the development of commercial space tourism is the self-interested one of being seen to aid the development of space activities which are popular with the general public. This is a far more desirable role than being seen as Cold War relics doing work of little economic value.

The huge difference between civil aviation and space was well illustrated by a comment by Alain Bensoussan when president of Cnes: "What we need is a space programme like Airbus" [14]. He was in fact arguing for an increase in Esa's budget, apparently oblivious to the irony that Airbus's success is due to its serving hundreds of millions of the general public as passengers - while Esa officials refuse even to discuss the possibility. Moreover, there is no "European Aviation Agency" acting solely as a "middle-man" between airlines and manufacturers - and Airbus also earns a far better return for European taxpayers than Esa, which is still heavily loss-making, with no end in sight.

Currently, staff and media spokespeople from space agencies like to emphasise their educational role, and they encourage school-children to study science and to apply to become astronauts - although the probability of success is barely one per million. The rapidly dwindling interest in the sciences, and particularly in aerospace, among young people in OECD countries, is increasingly recognised as a cause for concern [15], and shows that these efforts are of limited efficacy.

By contrast, it is well known that the Apollo project had a unique stimulating effect in encouraging record numbers of young Americans to study engineering and science. Both that one-off event and recent media interest in Dennis Tito's flight and Scaled Composites' sub-orbital activities suggest strongly that growing availability of space tourism activities, and corresponding growth of employment in the nascent space travel service industry, will spark a new boom in young peoples' interest in science, engineering and particularly aerospace [16].

Perhaps the ultimate prize of receiving popular support is for space agencies to be seen to be offering the general public an optimistic vision for the 21st century. The opportunity still exists for space agencies to be seen as the leading edge of humans' future peace and prosperity, but only if they seriously commit themselves to stimulating the rapid commercial supply of the space tourism services which we know the public wish to purchase, and which could contribute importantly to economic growth.


The potential political benefits of being seen to champion the growth of space tourism will grow as the general public comes to better understand its potential to become an important new industry - and thereby contribute fundamentally to overcoming the current world-wide recession and resuming economic growth. Figure 1 illustrates a growth scenario for space tourism based on work of the Japanese Rocket Society ( JRS) and first published in 1999 [17].

Figure 1: Feasible space tourism industry, assuming appropriate investment of 10% of OECD space agencies' budgets
"10% Challenge"

Since most of the investment needed to realise the scenario shown in Figure 1 would come from the private sector, the public investment required would be only about 10% of space agencies' existing budgets over the period to 2030. It is worth noting that if 10% of space agencies' budgets was committed to achieving this, it would only be necessary to generate $1 billion/year of revenues by 2030 in order to achieve as good a return on investment as space agencies have achieved to date. This could apparently be earned solely from sub-orbital space flight services [7] - which cannot be described as difficult. However the evidence available suggests that turnover in 2030 would be nearer to the $100 billion/year shown in Figure 1, plus rapid investment in new facilities.

By contrast to this scenario, government space agencies' projections foresee no such economically valuable space development, but merely a continuation of taxpayer-funded activities. The fundamental reason for this is that they have the wrong "paradigm" for space activities which is left over from the Cold War. The idea that performing activities selected by government-appointed experts is more valuable than supplying services that the general public want to buy is mistaken; indeed, this is what the Cold War was about.

This viewpoint considers the desire of the general public to experience space travel for themselves as "trivial"; but in fact it is consumer demand which drives economic growth. In normal business, $1 million invested successfully leads to commercial turnover of $1 million/year or more for several years, or even indefinitely. In this way demand from the public spontaneously multiplies the overall economic activity arising from investment by about 10 times (though individual companies' performance varies greatly, some achieving higher multiples and others lower).

It remains an inescapable economic fact that, unless government space expenditure stimulates the growth of services which the public wish to buy, this so-called "investment" is merely consumption, which destroys the public's savings rather than grows them. If space agencies' expenditure was as effective as normal commercial investment, there would already be a $1 trillion/ year commercial space industry - rather than a mere 1/50 of this. At a time when unemployment is high and rising worldwide specifically due to the lack of new industries, the development of a new industry rivaling passenger air travel, as shown in Figure 1, would be of far greater economic value than space agencies' activities.

In view of the potentially great economic benefits of developing a passenger space travel industry, permitting the current leadership of space agencies and their political overseers to continue to delay its development would be a further, large waste of economic resources. The cost of this waste has grown as the state of the world economy has deteriorated, with unemployment at its highest levels since the 1930s specifically due to inadequate development of new industries. It is therefore high time for those responsible for economic policy to face the need for appropriate reform of governments' space spending to make it more economically valuable.

The fact that space tourism would particularly use skills in which rich countries still have a relative advantage is a further benefit, since it will give them a "breathing space" before lower-cost countries take it over - if they move quickly.


Recent progress towards private space flight is creating the opportunity for space agencies to regain their past popularity as targets of popular aspiration. However, this requires them to change policy, and creates the challenge of being made irrelevant if they do not react appropriately. Steps that governments and space agencies could take have already been discussed elsewhere, including in [9, 12, 17]. Table 2 includes a short list of key needs.

  1. Formally acknowledge and disseminate the idea that space tourism is an important and valuable activity
  2. Collaborate deeply with the civil aviation industry
  3. Develop and operate both VTOL and HTOL sub-orbital passenger vehicles
  4. Advance rocket engine reusability like jet engines

Table 2: Keys to realising space tourism soon

If space agencies do not rise to this challenge, they will be increasingly perceived to be unconcerned about the issues which are of greatest interest to the general public, namely private space travel and economic growth. At a time of historically high and rising unemployment worldwide, heavy spending on activities with little economic value and of little interest to the public is unlikely to receive continuing political support - particularly as the public grows increasingly aware of the potential of private space travel activities. If space agencies fail to tackle this opportunity soon, it may become too late for them to play a significant role, since the development of space tourism is already starting - under the auspices of civil aviation. To date this has been a far more successful industry than space precisely because it is centred on supplying popular passenger services [9].

  1. M Dornheim, 2003, "Affordable Spaceship", Aviation Week & Space Technology, Cover Story, Vol 158, No 16, pp 64-73.
  2. D North, 2003, "X-Prize Competition is More Than a Race to Space", Aviation Week & Space Technology, Editorial, Vol 158, No 16, p 78.
  3. B Sweetman, 2003, "Burt Builds Your Ride to Space", Popular Science, Cover Story, Vol 263, No 1, pp 46-51.
  4. C Hoffman, 2003, "The Right Stuff", Wired, Cover Story, July, pp 134-145.
  5. M Dornheim, 2003, "SpaceShipOne Solos", Aviation Week & Space Technology, Vol 159, No 7, pp 32-33.
  6. I Bekey, 1998, "Economically Viable Public Space Travel", Proceedings of 49th IAF Congress, 1998; also downloadable from economically_viable_public_space_travel.shtml
  7. D Webber, February 2003, "Public Space Markets - What We Know and What We Don't Know", STAIF 2003; also downloadable from public_space_markets_what_we_know_ and_what_we_dont_know.shtml
  8. B Berger, 2003, " O'Keefe: Cost of Returning Shuttle to Flight is Manageable", Space News, vol 14, No 34, pp 1, 3.
  9. P Collins, 2003, "Space Tourism Market Demand and the Transportation Infrastructure", Invited speech to the AIAA/ICAS Symposium "The Next 100 Years" in honour of the Wright Brothers' First Flight, Paper no AIAA 2003-2909; also downloadable from demand_and_the_transportation_infrastructure.shtml
  10. T Rogers, 2003, " The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (as amended): Some Observations Concerning the Departure of Our Civil Space Program from this Law Over the Past 10-12 Years And the Results to the Program From so Doing", Sophron Foundation, July 12.
  11. P Collins, 2002, "Towards Space Tourism: The Challenge for British Space Policy", Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Vol 55, pp 149-159; also downloadable from towards_space_tourism_the_challenge_for_british_space_policy.shtml
  12. D O'Neil et al, 1998, "General Public Space Travel and Tourism Volume 1 - Executive Summary", NASA/STA, NP-1998-03-11-MSFC; also downloadable from general_public_space_travel_and_tourism.shtml
  13. P de Selding, 2003, "German Government Pushing Ahead With RLV Tests", Space News, Vol 14, No 34, p 6.
  14. Anon, 2001, Aviation Week & Space Technology, p 89, June 18.
  15. D North, 2003, "Aerospace Workforce Crisis: Industry Must Work Harder to Find Solution", Aviation Week & Space Technology, Editorial, Vol 159, No 5, p 54.
  16. P Collins, 2001, " Space Tourism: A Remedy for Crisis in Aerospace", Aviation Week & Space Technology, Editorial, Vol 155, No 24, p 98.
  17. P Collins, 1999, "Space Activities, Space Tourism and Economic Growth", Proceedings of Second ISST; also downloadable from economic_growth.shtml
P Collins, 2003, "Growing Popular Interest in Space Tourism: Challenge and Opportunity for Space Agencies", IAF paper no. IAC-03-LBN.1.08.
Also downloadable from popular interest in space tourism challenge and opportunity for space agencies.shtml

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