Space Tourism in `Wired News'
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Next Space Race: Tourism
by Jennifer Hillner
Almost two years after a St. Louis, Missouri, nonprofit organization
offered $10 million to the first private company to take tourists into
space, several serious competitors are testing their hardware and
aiming for a launch window around 2001.
"Let's not wait another 50 years before we get regular people into
space," said Diane Murphy of the X Prize Foundation, which in May 1996
put up the prize to hurry along the development of commercial space
The foundation's $10 million purse will go to the creator of the first
private reusable spaceship capable of carrying three humans 100
kilometers above the Earth on two consecutive flights within two
To date, the contest has attracted 16 entrants from Germany, the
United Kingdom, and the United States. The optimists among them
predict 2001 as the year the travel industry will change forever.
Funding to support the prize comes largely from the New Spirit of
St. Louis Organization, which lifted its name from the original 1927
group of investors that supported Charles Lindbergh's successful
attempt to make the first non-stop flight between New York and
Paris. Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize for his trouble, one of 50
aeronautical prizes offered in the late 1920s now credited with
helping to spawn the $250 billion aviation industry.
For its part, NASA welcomes the privatization of space flight.
"We're all for the X Prize," said Brian Welch, NASA's vews
chief. "NASA was charged with opening up the space frontier," Welch
said. "But we can't open up the frontier without the private sector,"
Long term, NASA plans to move away from the business of cargo hauling
to focus on research and development. To do that, the organization is
pairing with Lockheed-Martin to create a next-generation reusable
launch vehicle dubbed Venture Star. At present, Venture Star is
intended to carry communication satellites into low-Earth-orbit. But
eventually, the vehicle could be modified to carry people into space,
the government agency has said.
But the X Prize Foundation's $10 million trophy might lure others
Leading the pack of space race competitors is Pioneer Rocketplane, an
aerospace company out of Lakewood, Colorado. Pioneer says its space
plane, Pathfinder, will be able to take off and land horizontally from
any large commercial runway, overcoming launch site uncertainties.
This week, the company has been wind-tunnel testing an exact-size
model of the plane, according to chief scientist Dr. Robert Zubrin.
"The model helps us to gather technical data and see how the ship will
react in flight," Zubrin said. The Pathfinder will also have the
ability to be refueled in mid-flight from an airborne tanker.
"Our motto is to get it there yesterday," Zubrin said. Within 15
minutes a space rocket could reach Mach 19 or 13,000 miles per hour
and travel from New York to a Kenyan safari in just over an hour,
Hoping to beat Pioneer to the prize is Virginia-based AeroAstro. That
company is building a conventional, vertically-launched rocket called
the PA-X2. "We are in the business of producing affordable access to
space," said AeroAstro's Kara Campbell. "The bottom line is that
people should have that access," she said.
AeroAstro's small team of five, including Mojave George, an engineer
who has been building spacecraft since the launch of NASA's Apollo,
are in the last stage of testing their liquid oxygen/kerosene,
pressure-fed engine. The engine is slated to be completed by March
with eventual space-vehicle testing in 2003, Campbell said.
"We didn't enter this contest with the idea of slaughtering our
competition," said Campbell. "But we are only one of two groups who
actually has hardware," she said.
Both space planes will rely on a combination of jets and rockets for
propulsion. A rocket burn will accelerate the craft from 37,000 feet
to an altitude of 62 miles in less than two minutes. At that
altitude, passengers will have reached what scientists have agreed
upon as the boundary of space. Once there, passengers will experience
weightlessness and astronomical views, according to Pioneer plans.
Just as many of Lindbergh's competitors spent 16 times the amount of
the $25,000 prize to initiate the flights, the costs of developing a
commercial space vehicle far exceed the amount of the X
Prize. AeroAstro calculates the cost of development will be close to
$30 million, whereas Pioneer estimates costs could soar to $100
million. "Our business plan does not rest on winning the X Prize,"
Instead, the space-plane companies hope to capture a share of the
revenue derived from launching more than 1,500 low-Earth orbit
satellites for companies such as Iridium, Teledesic, and Celestri in
the years to come. Seventy percent of those company's mission budgets
- upwards of $15 million - is devoured by the cost of the satellite's
ride into orbit alone. The lucrative same-day, global package delivery
industry will likely also be keenly interested.
Still, building and launching the spacecraft may not be the greatest
obstacle facing the entrepreneurs. Presently it takes 21 separate
governmental sign-offs to obtain the required licensing and clearance
to travel into space, according to NASA's Welch.
With the passage of the Space Commercialization Act late last year,
space entrepreneurs might be freed from some of that red tape. The
legislation demonstrates that the government is taking an active role
in privatizing space transportation, remote sensing space systems, and
remote launching vehicles.
"We are very much in favor of space commercialization," said Natasha
Clerihue, spokeswoman for California congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who
chairs the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.
"And we have big things planned for this year," Clerihue promised.