8 July 2008
Reports - Tourism (Good)
First “Private Human Access to Space” Symposium
A review of the conference
by Patrick Collins
The first symposium on Personal Access to Space held by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) in Arcachon, France, May 28-30, 2008, was a mixture of both the encouraging and the discouraging.

First, the fact that the IAA, a "mainstream" space industry organisation founded in the 1960s, has at last acknowledged the importance of the subject of passenger space travel by holding a symposium is very good -- and further vindication of Space Future's policy since 1997. It was also encouraging to see 130 people seriously discussing technical issues, tourism and marketing issues, legal issues, financing issues, and related topics. Also encouraging were speakers from the "mainstream" space industry, who spoke enthusiastically about the symposium. They seem to enjoy doing something popular.

As an example, one of the Plenary Session speakers said that since it announced its sub-orbital "Spacejet" project, Astrium, the major European aerospace company, gets 50 calls a day from people wanting to work on space tourism. Several other speakers also remarked on the great "outreach," and the enthusiasm of young engineers in this field. Doesn't this say it all? Or it would, if the space industry worked like other industries to supply services that the public want to buy. But of course that is NOT how the space industry works -- yet -- and hence we're still waiting for sub-orbital flight services to begin, 66 years after the V2 showed the world how its done!

On the other hand, it was discouraging that no-one from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) attended. It's a very important fact, which needs to be widely understood, that space agencies have no interest in realising passenger space travel (despite their legal responsibility to encourage commercial activities in space). In the USA it is the FAA which is helping the companies and organisations working to supply passenger space flight services. As an example of the FAA's value in this, Dr Melchor Antunano, the Director of the US Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, came to Arcachon and made three very positive presentations on medical and safety aspects of space travel, demonstrating the FAA's immense experience and support for passenger space travel. At a time when the value of the EU in its entirety is in severe doubt (the member governments' refuse to let their populations vote on the proposed Constitution [!]) it would be encouraging if EASA, like the FAA, was showing itself keen to help develop a major new industry which could contribute greatly to solving Europe's terrible unemployment problem.

The failure of anyone from EASA to attend the IAA symposium therefore tends to confirm the fears of the growing proportion of the general public that the EU is becoming a bureaucratic nightmare which, once locked in place with the new, never-even-voted-for "constitution," will trap the whole of Europe in stagnation, corruption, and decline.

It was similarly discouraging that no one from the European Space Agency (ESA)'s "Advanced Concepts Team" (ACT) attended either. Space agency leaders seem to have collectively decided to stick it out and remain dependents on the public purse, shrinking in "dignity" -- until, presumably, they disappear -- rather than do anything "undignified" like dirtying their hands to help supply the public with services they want to buy.

A related point of interest was the official position paper that the directors of ESA had published shortly before the IAA meeting. As an illustration of how far away space agencies are from feeling any responsibility towards the taxpayers who pay for them, the statement considers in what way the development of sub-orbital passenger travel services may be useful to ESA. It's official stance is: "Cautious interest and informed support." No thought of how ESA could or should encourage the growth of a profitable field of space activities!

In the session on actual vehicle projects, it was great to hear speakers discussing many different aspects of their projects: the technical design, passenger experience, market expectations, sponsorship, and others. It would be even better if all the projects described were going ahead. What is ridiculous is that the total cost of building vehicles would be a tiny fraction of what space agencies spend on projects with little or no economic value…and it would lead to symposia with ten times the size, with wide media coverage, corporate sponsorship, and so on. It's time that governments actually made some effort to fulfill their stated policy to develop commercial space activities.

The presentation on Astrium's "Spacejet" showed the difficulty that mainstream aerospace companies have in this pioneering field. Estimating that you need to spend 1 billion Euros in order to get started puts you in a bind from the outset: how are you going to earn 2 billion Euros in profits? 1/2 million profit per flight for 4,000 flights would add 125,000 Euros per ticket for four passengers. This would kill any possibility of cutting prices, and strains the credibility of any such market forecast.

Another aerospace major, Dassault, presented its conceptual vehicle "VSH" to be air-launched from an airliner. The presenter was less than confident either that the project would go ahead or that it could be profitable. Inevitably, what EADS decides to do will have great influence on their own plans. The project will be presented in more detail at the 2008 IAF Congress in Glasgow.

Rocketplane's presentation described how they've solved their final design issues, and now have a very promising vehicle and offering: now they just need the money to finish it off.

There was also a presentation including X-Cor's minimum-cost "Lynx" sub-orbital vehicle. This vehicle should fly to 61 km altitude at a substantially lower cost than other projects. In view of the extreme difficulty of raising money for aerospace development work, this may well be a wise strategy.

Among many other items of interest, consecutive presentations about proposed European spaceports in Curacao (a Dutch holiday island in the Caribbean) and Kiruna (northern Sweden) were useful in reminding listeners how varied the tourism industry is. It's not just cocktails on the beach…pre- and post-space activities includes skiing, midnight sun, Aurora-watching and "Ice Hotels," and many other offerings.

Overall, about one third of the presentations concerned legal or regulatory issues which, on the one hand, shows that the subject is getting taken more seriously. But on the other hand, if the lack of resources for vehicle and spaceport development continue, there will be a danger of laws being made before the practitioners are there to speak for the industry. However, since the lawyers themselves spoke of "the mutual ignorance of space and aviation lawyers," they have plenty of work to do.

There was also a presentation reminding the audience that you cannot draw up a realistic business plan for sub-orbital space tourism which earns a venture-capital rate-of-return -- without a partial grant from some source, be it government or "angel investors."
This fits with Space Future's argument that governments should provide support in appropriate forms to this industry, due to the numerous benefits that society will obtain as a whole as governments have supported numerous other industries, including giving $1 trillion (!) to the development of expendable rockets, satellites, and space stations.

Finally, it was encouraging to hear the announcement that there will be a second symposium, probably in 2010. With luck, despite the lack of public support, the second symposium should have the start of fare-paying passenger flights to celebrate.

The papers and presentations from the Symposium are to be made available on a DVD in the near future. Please contact the IAA for details.
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Patrick Collins 8 July 2008
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