How commercial space tourism is driving a fresh scramble for the stars

7 min read

Commercial space exploration technology could enable low-cost access to space for both tourists and scientists. Jon Excell reports

commercial space
Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnight Two mothership carrying Spaceship Two

The space race was at fever pitch. Yuri Gagarin’s orbit around earth was a distant memory, milestones came and went in the blink of an eye, and mankind was less than a year away from walking on the moon.

Little wonder that when 2001: A Space Odyssey hit the big screens in 1968, the prospect of holiday makers checking into an orbiting Hilton hotel seemed less far-fetched than it would to modern movie-goers. And while the shifting political landscape saw these early dreams stutter to a halt, the scramble for space is now back on again.

Advanced instruments and powerful telescopes give us new and compelling scientific reasons to head for the stars, while the emerging superpowers, China and India, are keen to make symbolic statements redolent of those earlier markers put down in the 1960s. And although President Obama has taken a step back from the ambitious timelines of the Bush administration, the US still harbours strong ambitions to put man back on the moon sooner rather than later.

But there is another potentially more potent force driving the development of space technology. One with a huge budget, an imagination unbridled by political red-tape and the desire to fulfil a lifelong ambition whatever the cost: the space tourist.

Space tourism, or private space exploration, is still an exceptionally new industry. Its nascent moment came in 2001 when US multimillionaire Dennis Tito paid fledgling space tourism firm Space Adventures around $20 million dollars to be sent to the international space station aboard a Russian Soyuz Rocket. Five other millionaires have followed in his footsteps, most recently UK-born video game developer Richard Garriot, who spent ten days aboard the ISS at a reported cost of $30 million.

commercial space
Earth's first space tourist Dennis Tito (far left) aboard the ISS

Considering the huge sums flying about it’s tempting to wonder what relevance these voyages could possibly have to the rest of us. However, many believe that the dreams of this handful of millionaires have paved the way for a new generation of space technology that could put not just tourists, but a host of scientific payloads into orbit at a fraction of today’s costs.

Tom Shelley, VP of marketing with Space Adventures, regards Dennis Tito as a something of a pioneer. ‘He was the first one who put up the money and really proved to a lot of people out there that there is money in private space, that there are people who are prepared to pay for themselves to go up into space and it’s not just the governments who need to pay for space flight.’

As the “final frontier’s” equivalent of Thomas Cook, Shelley’s gaze is firmly fixed on the tens of thousands of people he thinks would pay good money to visit space. But as the demand for space tourism drives down the launch costs he believes the industry will create a range of other opportunities. ‘In general it’s accepted that the cost of delivery of 1kg of payload into orbit is approx $10,000,’ he said. ‘That is very, very expensive and its one of the biggest hurdles we have to the long term exploration of space. Private space flight will bring the volume that is required to reduce those launch costs.’

A number of companies are now working away on the launcher and spaceship technology that could make this a reality and it’s all being driven along by an eclectic cast of entrepreneurs from outside the traditional space industry: people like PayPal founder Elon Musk, Microsoft’s Paul Allen, and Virgin’s Richard Branson who’s become something of figurehead for the industry.

commercial space
Artist's impression of Spaceport America in New Mexico

Indeed, based on current claims, it looks as though Branson’s Virgin Galactic will be the first of these so called  “new space” companies to take paying customers into space. Though it hasn’t set a date for first flights, the company is already taking bookings for $200,000 flights aboard its six passenger spacecraft SpaceshipTwo and is expected to unveil the vehicle for the first time later this year. This is all the  more remarkable considering the fact that three engineers working on the project were killed during an explosion in 2007.

Based heavily on the design of Burt Rutan’s X-prize winning SpaceshipOne, the vehicle will be launched from a mothership - WhiteKnightTwo - which is currently undergoing rigorous, high altitude test flights. Both have been constructed in the Mojave desert, New Mexico by The Spaceship Company (TSC), a manufacturing enterprise established by Virgin and Burt Rutan’s firm Scaled Composites.

Employing the same principle as Rutan’s SpaceshipOne, the spaceship will be carried by launch vehicle up to around 50,000 feet before its single hybrid rocket motor propels it upto 110km above sea level at a speed of around 2,600 mph.

In common with other existing projects SpaceShip Two will not reach the velocity required to reach orbit, so after around 6 minutes of weightlessness will begin its return to the ground. For this reason it will be known as a sub-orbital space flight.

While SpaceShipTwo’s first passengers will almost certainly be tourists, Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn believes that  scientists and industry will quickly embrace the technology to carry out high altitude, zero gravity experiments as well as launch payloads such as satellites into orbit. ‘We’ve built 17 tonnes lift of over 50,000 feet capacity in to WhiteKnightTwo,’ he said, ‘that will allow us to get an unmanned vehicle to launch a 200kg satellite to low earth orbit.’

commercial space
Whiteknight Two, the carrier craft for Spaceship Two

And while WhiteKnightTwo is currently only certified as a space launch system, Whitehorn claimed that it could also represent a  vision for future aircraft design. ‘This vehicle is a technology showcase for what the manufacturers of the future can be doing with composites,’ he said. ‘It could also be a vision for Airbus and Boeing in the future in trying to build aircraft that instead of being 20 per cent more efficient than they are today with a bit of composite in them are 60 per cent more efficient – as white knight is against the equivalent aluminium vehicle.’

While the finishing touches are being made to the vehicles, activity on the ground is also gathering pace. Construction is now underway in New Mexico on Spaceport America, from were Virgin Galactic will launch its flights. And looking further into the future a number of other locations around the world are being offered up as possible spaceport sites.

Whitehorn believes Sweden and the Middle East may soon develop sites, while here in the UK a lobby group known as the Spaceport Scotland Support Group is talking up the potential of a using the Lossiemouth airbase in Moray.

Whiltehorn backs this idea but warned that the UK could fail to exploit the potential of the technology without appropriate legislation. ‘One thing America has that nobody else has is legislation to allow this system to be built and operated – that is a vision the US fulfilled in the commercialisation of space amendment act and a vision that this country is failing to fulfil at the moment. [The UK] should be a natural place to come. In the North of Scotland we have the cleared air space and a great view of the edge of Europe and Lossiemouth would be an ideal place to do polar interjection orbits. However, we have no legislation to allow it to happen. We’ve got the world’s most private sector orientated satellite construction industry in Britain and we have no legislation to allow a system capable of exploiting the new technologies that can be taken into space. It’s time to have our own commercialisation of space amendment act.’

commercial space
Xcor's Lynx Spaceplane

Back in the Mojave desert, Virgin Galactic’s neighbour Xcor is working on a slightly different spacecraft concept, a one-stage spaceplane known as the Lynx that will take off from a runway and carry its pilot and passenger 65km above sea level.

Although the final design for the craft hasn’t yet been finalised, the company has developed and demonstrated a series of test-bed rocket planes which according to company COO Andrew Nelson, account for more than half of the manned rocket flights carried out this century.

Xcor hopes to be able fly the Lynx into space several times a day, so much of its  work has focussed on the development of rocket engines that can be repeatedly and safely switched on and off.  Nelson said that one of the keys to this capability is the use of piston pumps, which are considerably simpler than the turbo pumps used on the space shuttle.

Like Whitehorn, Nelson is also keen to talk up the alternative applications of the Lynx Spaceplane, and believes that Satellite launch could be a huge market for the company. ‘We can put a 10 to 15 kg satellite in to low earth  orbit at a price point well below half a million dollars with about 2 days notice. Today if you have small piggy back payload you wait about two years and pay a very high price and then maybe you might get your flight,’ he said.

Given the bold claims  being made for the technology it seems reasonable to ask why the likes of NASA or ESA - the  “old space” community  -  aren’t turning to similar models?

Well, in fact, they are. In one particularly notable example of old space recognising the value of new space NASA recently awarded  SpaceX  - a company founded by PayPal and Tesla motors founder Elon Musk - a $1.6 billion contract to develop its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and spacecraft to resupply the ISS  after the space shuttle retires.

commercial space
A SpaceX rocket on the launch pad

Space Adventures’ Tom Shelley believes the Spacex contract  - which includes 12 flights between 2010 and 2015 mounts a hugely compelling case for new space: ‘For around 35 billion dollars NASA will be developing a new rocket and a new Orion capsule. The  ESA ATV cost about 2 billion to develop and 600 million to build each one. For 1.6 billion NASA will get 12 launches with capsules and rockets of the SpaceX Falcon 9 – the magnitude of difference is extraordinary.’

Old space also harbours its own ambitions to get directly in on the act courtesy of the EADS Astrium spaceplane, a concept spacecraft that like  Xcor’s Lynx will take off and land from standard airport. Unlike the Lynx, Astrium’s design uses jet engines for take-off and then fires the rocket engines once the craft reaches an altitude of 12 km to push it on to 100 km. When it reaches this height,  propulsion system will shut down and the four passengers and 1 pilot will experience around 3 minutes of weightlessness.

Though it will travel at higher altitude than the Xcor plane, the EADS spaceplane is also perhaps the furthest from production of today’s commercial spacecraft.  The pre-project phase is complete, and the company is now looking for private investment to take to the vehicle to the next level.

commercial space
The EADS Spaceplane concept

If and when this happens, Hugues Laporte-Weywada, Deputy Chief Technical Officer at EADS Astrium believes that the technology required to make the Spaceplane fly has already been developed through EADS numerous other space projects. ‘We reignite satellite engines once a day for 15 years without interruption we reignite the Ariane upper stage reignitable engine for ATV missions for launching probes – we have propulsion technology, we have aeronautic technology and re-entry technology’ he said.

At a time when many long established engineering sectors are struggling to survive its easy to understand why some are irritated by the space tourism business, driven as it is by the whims of unimaginably wealthy individuals and the force of personality of maverick entrepreneurs. But there’s also plenty to admire. The technology is impressive, and the industry has more than a whiff of Howard Hughes and the early years of aviation about it.

As it sets about developing the systems that will slash the cost of sending humans into space it might also just be edging us  - a little later than some predicted  - a step closer to Stanley Kubrick’s orbiting Hilton.