Private Space

Is the Future Reserved for Well-Heeled Civilians?

Are you one of those waiting for the day when space travel is no longer reserved for highly trained astronauts? Well, wait no longer.  2012 may go down in history as the year private industry takes over the race to space—at least America’s part. For a price, individuals can take day trips to space, overnight visits to a space station, book a space hotel—even one near the moon—and if one has the desire for romance, it could soon be possible to get married in space with a wedding dress designed for the occasion.

Recently the former Speaker of the House and current candidate for the Republican presidential nomination Newt Gingrich made a controversial speech in Florida calling for a permanent base on the Moon. He was speaking to an audience in the area along Florida’s Space Coast where an end to space shuttle activities has taken a toll on jobs in Cocoa, Melborne, and other nearby towns which have long relied on the high-paying employment which came with space development. A moon colony, said Newt, could be accomplished by 2020, but private industry is taking the attitude: why wait so long!

During October of 2011, Virgin Galactic held its first space Industry Day in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with two hundred companies, displaying a large array of the services, goods and technology needed for all this to happen. Many who were not there, had hoped to secure invitations to the event, but space (on Earth, that is) was limited to just two hundred. Airline billionaire and adventurer Sir Richard Branson—having made Virgin Galactic the latest addition to his list of Virgin Companies—hosted the event, in conjunction with The Spaceship Company and the New Mexico Spaceport Authority. Besides the opportunity to do business and make connections, attendees got a chance to see the newly christened Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space, the company’s glittering spaceport.

So far, of course, both those companies offering tourist travel and those along for the ride are in that much-maligned 1% lately targeted by the so-called “Occupy” movement. A brief voyage on Virgin’s VSS Enterprise is a hefty $200,000 and requires a $20,000 deposit. The number of space tourists with a reserved seat is at this writing already above 475. What can they expect? First, three days of training are required, a considerably taller order than to board a regular airliner. Next is a visit to the Mohave Desert, where would-be astronauts board the craft and get ready for takeoff. A large carrier aircraft has the Spaceship Two attached beneath it. From takeoff the entire assemblage will reach 50,000 feet, where the rocket is launched. This is where the passengers get their first big rush as the thrust will make them feel like they weigh half a ton. The engine will then go quiet, and the feeling of weightlessness will kick in as the craft passes through the “boundary” of space. This is set at the internationally defined distance of 62 miles from Earth. Passengers are now free to move, or actually float, about the cabin. They will also have their pictures taken. After all, what vacation would be complete without snapshots to reminisce over later? After reaching the approximate distance of 68 miles, it will turn around and return to Earth. The whole journey lasts about two-and-a-half hours. As far as we know, no meals will be served, no in-flight movies shown, and no baggage checked. The good news is that only six passengers will share the flight with the crew.

Is it safe? A recent test flight of the craft that will carry the passengers previously suffered a malfunction that sent it out of control. In a last minute move, worthy of Apollo 13, the crew corrected the problem, stabilized the craft, and made a smooth landing.

If you don’t feel safe, though, there is the opportunity to purchase trip insurance. Allianz, an insurance giant, is offering a product that will be launched this year as well. The cost is not yet established, but if you like the idea of one-stop shopping there are currently 58 accredited travel agencies that will hook you up with both the trip and trip insurance.

Technically this is a suborbital flight, the virtual beginners’ level for space travel.

For the More Adventurous…

The next level is a company called XCOR Aerospace. They are also located in the Mohave Desert. They have flights in a two-seater space plane. One seat is for the pilot, so you can’t bring a guest, and the cost is $95,000, a shade under the $110,000 that Space Adventures will be charging. XCOR has 100 deposits and rival Space Adventures has 200 deposits.

The Mohave Desert is also home to a company called Scaled Composites, which won the 10-million-dollar X-Prize for design of a commercial spaceship and Masten Space Systems founded by Dave Masten a former engineer at Cisco Systems. While information technology was his day job, Masten designed a lunar lander. He said he has had an interest in aerospace since childhood.

Not to be left out, Jeff Bezos the founder of has also founded Blue Origin, which is initially focused on the suborbital market. Operating pretty much in secret, the company first needed to put aside a large amount of land, which they did in Culberson County, Texas. Using a McDonnell Douglas developed technology, they intend to build a craft that will take off and land vertically. The significance of this is that less of the hardware used becomes disposable. This reduces the expense and may serve to increase the safety.

For those who believe suborbital flights are a bit tame, and $200,000 pocket change, Space Adventures may show the way toward the future. The company has announced that it is working on the first circumlunar flights to the Moon. The cost for a ticket, $100 million, is out of reach for anyone but an oil tycoon. This might explain why their spaceport is being built in the United Arab Emirates (in Ras al-Khaimah).

Need to Get It in Space Faster? Call SpaceX.

It should be noted that in a century and a half, America has gone from Pony Express to SpaceX. Not to be confused with FedEx, this is another private company with a family of rockets called Falcons and their own capsule named the “Dragon.” The Dragon is capable of taking seven people at a time to the International Space Station (ISS) or another privately planned spaceport built by Bigelow Aerospace. The Falcons have been tested, and four flights may take place this year carrying cargo where needed. The Dragon is still two years away from paying passengers but will make an unmanned flight to the ISS sometime this year. The Dragon capsule is intended to get close enough to the ISS with the help of a robot arm which will reach out and bring it in to dock. If it works, and there are hundreds of millions riding on its success, it will be the first private craft to dock with the Space Station.

SpaceX is the creation of still another Dot Com pioneer, this time Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal, and a multimillionaire by age 30. When SpaceX was still just an idea, Musk had some stunning plans. One was to seed Mars with nutrient gel to start a life support system. Another was to buy used rockets, but after three trips to Russia for that purpose, he decided that plan was too dangerous. The third, and most ambitious idea is to make humans a multi-planet species. Far out, yes, but this is a man who took the Falcon 9 from a plan on a sheet of paper to its first launch in just four years.

While Musk’s gaze might be on the stars, his practicality is a key ingredient in making his vision a reality. One less-lofty goal is to bring the cost of getting a pound of goods into orbit from the current $2500 to a more reasonable $1000. Pioneers with business sense might have the right stuff to make space ventures a reality. NASA was roundly criticized for contracting to build three vehicles that could operate on the Moon with a price tag in the hundreds of millions. Cost conscious private industry might simply have sent a modified Jeep Wrangler.

Why is such cost cutting important? To keep America best at what private industry can accomplish. Up until recently, it seemed that China’s space program had virtually overtaken both Russia and the United States. In the last ten years China has launched three manned missions with their own rockets and spacecraft. They have completed their own space walk; and as of last fall, they have begun the building of their own space station the Tiangong-1. Their plans for the next decade include a much larger space station, more long-term missions, and a landing of their own on the Moon. But where the American government has apparently dropped the ball, private industry has picked it up. A spokesman for China’s Long March rockets recently conceded that they couldn’t compete with SpaceX.

To make sure of this, Musk has taken the very unusual step of deciding not to file patents. Why give the Chinese a recipe they can tweak?

The biggest challenge to date has been competing with a Boeing, Lockheed Martin consortium that is used for “cost plus contracts.” Price is no object for someone getting taxpayers’ money. But NASA does place an emphasis on safety, at which the Merlin rockets that power the Falcon also excel. The Merlin has the highest thrust to weight ratio of any rocket ever produced. To keep that edge, almost everything is produced within SpaceX rather than contracted out.

Musk’s true goal: Make Mars habitable and within reach for the average homebuyer in California.

History in the Making

The history of space travel might have begun with the April 1961 voyage of Yuri Gagarin—who made the first human orbital flight for Russia—and with Alan Shepard Jr. who became the first American, one month later. The history of private space travel began in 2004 when the less-well-known Mike Melville flew the first privately funded, manned spacecraft, Space Ship One. Another milestone was made when the first private American citizen went to the International Space Station. For a healthy 20 million dollars Dennis Tito, a Queens born Italian-American engineer who once worked at Jet Propulsion Labs, made the trip (this despite NASA’s reluctance to train him). His one-week vacation in 2001 made him the first. He was followed the next year by a South African computer millionaire, and in 2005, by Gregory Olsen. The fees for these adventures ranged from $20 million to $30 million. While this seems expensive, NASA estimates it costs them $53 million to send an astronaut to the ISS.

With the International Space Station growing in importance and having 16 member nations, it may ultimately become the hub of space tourism; but it will, by no means, be the only orbiting destination available.

We’ll Keep the Light On for You

The first hotel pioneers are already getting in line, and Branson hopes such space destinations will soon be accessible to Virgin flights. Bigalow Aerospace is actually a venture founded by the hotel entrepreneur Robert Bigalow. In 20 years his interests went from running Budget Suites of America, a Western States chain of extended-stay accommodations to planning for extended-stay vacations in space. If anyone thinks he is less than serious, try to visit his North Las Vegas base. Security is as tight as Area 51, which is a couple hours north in the desert. His company is building the BA 330, a module with the same cubic-foot volume as the Skylab. The SpaceX “Falcon Heavy” will deliver the supplies and rockets that could allow the module as far as the Moon.

Bigalow is outspoken regarding the desperate need for America to reclaim its leadership role in space. He claims that at this point that China is first, Russia second, and America has willingly fallen back to third place. At the 2011 International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight he discussed what his company was doing in terms of space module construction and even a series of labs for a human lunar colony.

His biggest problem is that the rest of the industry, Boeing included, cannot keep up with his company. He is ready to go in 2014 but has been forced to slow production, as other companies need to keep pace.

Another lodging company called Excalibur Almaz is planning to modernize Soviet Almaz space stations with larger windows to provide the view tourists will demand in space. Hilton and British Airways already have begun to formulate ideas for such a visit to space. What is being called “The Space Islands Project,” plans for a unit that can be in place by 2020 and hold as many as 20,000 guests. Hilton has surveyed possible future guests with questions about preference for weightlessness and window size, looking far beyond the more Spartan modules we will see over the next few years.

With such forward thinking in place, it is just possible that American private industry, on its own, could put the country back in first place in the race to space.

Such forward thinking, at its best, benefits not only those for whom money is not an object but all of us. If you would like to hold your wedding on Space Island, designer Eri Matsui has designed a wedding gown as well as outfits for bridesmaids and groomsmen to look sharp even when there is no gravity.

By Steven Sora

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