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Creating Commercial Spacecraft for Space Tourism

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posted on Dec, 13 2002 @ 08:56 PM
If scads of surveys are correct, the public is hungry for ticket counter takeoffs to space. But ff you're hoping to experience a little sightseeing from Earth orbit anytime soon, you might have to delay buffing up your space helmet visor. The track record on building tourist-toting rockets is anything but stellar. Take for instance, Rotary Rocket's private effort that went south, not up. The company, like several other entrepreneurial groups no longer in action, was fueled by high-hopes but riding empty on cash....

If scads of surveys are correct, the public is hungry for ticket counter takeoffs to space.

But ff you're hoping to experience a little sightseeing from Earth orbit anytime soon, you might have to delay buffing up your space helmet visor. The track record on building tourist-toting rockets is anything but stellar.

Take for instance, Rotary Rocket's private effort that went south, not up. The company, like several other entrepreneurial groups no longer in action, was fueled by high-hopes but riding empty on cash. For its part, NASA has coughed up billions of taxpayer bucks for any number of "beyond shuttle" escapades. First there was the ill-fated X-33 prototype single-stage-to-orbit space plane. It went down in flames even before its set of fancy aerospike engines could ignite.

More recently, NASA's highly flaunted Space Launch Initiative to build super-slick generations of reusable boosters dead-ended.

Over the years, an array of contraptions to push cargo and humans into Earth orbit have been sketched out. (There is no doubt that the "ABV" -- Air-Brushed Vehicle -- art business is solid.)

Nevertheless, an unwavering cadre of rocket engineers, space planners and tourism experts fully expect 21st century spaceliners are on the horizon. But how to get up there from down here remains up for grabs.

Launch lingo

In its final report issued last week to the President and the U.S. Congress, the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry made special note of the promise of public space travel - beyond hurling millionaires into space at upwards of $20 million a throw.

"While today there is an extremely limited number of people in the world who can afford a $20 million vacation, we should marvel not at the price but at the fact that the demand exists at all," the Commission observed.

"Given what people do spend on vacations and amusement park rides and adventure travel, we have no reason to doubt that the demand will rise without limit as the price drops," explained the Commission's report.

Moreover, the Commission suggested that space tourism markets might help fund the launch industry through its current market slump. Increased launch demand thanks to space tourism could help drive launch costs down, they concluded, perhaps ultimately support a robust space transportation industry with "airline-like operations."

For that to happen, a special breed of rocket is essential: the reusable launch vehicle, or RLV in launch lingo.

Interagency cooperation

"We come down very solidly in favor of RLV as a way of, hopefully, bringing down costs," Commission chairman, Robert Walker, told

"We think it's the RLV technology that ultimately gives you the opportunity for public space participation," Walker notes.

Melding civilian and military space interests, Walker explained, is a way to serve up that high-tech order. "Let's look at the kind of interagency cooperation that makes all of our space assets available to everyone."

Walker said that NASA's recent judgment to pursue an Orbital Space Plane -- a taxi and rescue/return craft to ferry crewmembers to and from the International Space Station -- might give the nation a leg up on space tourism.

"As we human test that concept, that may offer an opportunity to covert it into a space tourism possibility," Walker judges.

Steep ticket prices

Space tourism as an emerging, but long-term market, contends John Olds, President and CEO of SpaceWorks Engineering, Inc., based in Atlanta, Georgia. Having a space tourist shell out millions of dollars for a blast into the heavens does not a major market make, he cautions.

"In order to capture a market of any size, ticket prices probably have to fall into the $50,000 to $100,000 range. For a realistic number of passenger seats on a future reusable launch vehicle, say 20, the revenues per flight are less than $2 million. At this point, even the third-generation reusable launch vehicle designs we've looked at here have trouble getting their operations and support cost under that÷much less being able to justify their development costs to address this market," Olds says.

Olds advises that public space travel might blossom into being if a government entity bankrolled the building of a reusable launch vehicle designed to handle other needs. The developing company could then turn that launcher into a space tourism vehicle. However, individual ticket prices would remainsteep. "More millionaires in space," he adds.

Chancy lottery idea

Another avenue to cultivate true public access to space is through a lottery system.

Buying a "chance" to ride into space for $100 a ticket or so has merit, Olds says. This idea assumes that individuals are willing to purchase a ticket for less than a 1/100 chance of winning, and that lottery ticket sales could be sustained for more than a year or so.

A similar view was advanced at a three-day gathering of 200 young professionals from 47 nations at last month's World Space Congress in Houston, Texas. A global lottery was one recommendation among many put forth during a Space Generation Summit. In essence, the lottery idea would bolster within the larger population the notion that public space travel is possible

Lottery ticket sales for a small fee like $100 would lead to the winner training for a visit to the International Space Station (ISS). Better yet is planting a tourist module on the ISS.

Air Force and NASA work on a single-stage-to-orbit prototype, the Delta Clipper.
New U.S. military interest in a space plane could lead to "airline-like" operations
of space boosters. Credit: Air Force Research Laboratory

"Building a separate hotel in space at this time seems cost prohibitive. However, several large hotel chains might be willing to invest in a special module on an existing space station. They could use this module as a learning lab for space tourism and eventually create separate hotels," explains a Space Generation Summit briefing sheet on commerce and space.

Out of the capsule era

Strong parallels can be drawn between the current commercial space travel market and the beginning of commercial aviation travel, notes Jason Andrews, President of Andrews Space & Technology, headquartered in Seattle, Washington.

Like the early years of air travel, space travel of today is infrequent, risky, and exhilarating for the passenger, Andrews points out.

NASA and industry rocketeers have been persistently pursuing dream machines that deliver a huge reduction in launch costs. The ability to do so is often tied to having such craft operate in airline-like fashion.

"It's a clich» that implies a highly operable, highly reusable vehicle that requires relatively small fixed overhead. To achieve this we need to develop better engine and thermal protection technology, which are big ticket item development activities," Andrews suggests.

Andrews believes the technology is in hand to apply "airline-like operations" to the suborbital tourism market. "However, it will be quite some time before the orbital tourism market evolves out of the Capsule Era," he feels.

A certain uncertainty

Some space planners believe that flat-out uncertainty is the key factor holding back the development of the space tourism market.

"While the uncertainty in demand [for public space travel] is being addressed through numerous studies, the supply-side uncertainty remains a significant obstacle for private investors," explains Simone Garneau, co-founder and consultant for Futuraspace LLC in Montreal, Canada.

Garneau senses that while investors are willing to take calculated risks, "they are not comfortable with the high levels of uncertainty that, presently, are not quantified."

Both the private and public sectors, Garneau urges, need a "space tourism roadmap" - one that outlines the necessary steps for resolving the cost, capacity, frequency and reliability problems related to access to space.

Paradigm shift and cultural change

A likely source of pushing space plane technology -- designed for high sortie rates, speedy turnaround, and a host of other operational issues -- is the U.S. military.

Military needs go right to the heart of airline-like operations. More so than NASA, explains Jay Penn, a senior project engineer and head of the Reusable Launch Office at The Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California.

"When you look at it from a NASA perspective, they don't have a driving or compelling need for a very highly operable, quick turnaround vehicle. Their current sizing is based on what I call this heavy-lift capability, flying only a four to six launchers per year to support the International Space Station," Penn said.

Penn said that it appears to be technically possible to develop a reusable space booster to support a commercially viable space tourism industry. There's a caveat, however.

For a space tourism industry to be viable, flight rates about two orders of magnitude higher than those required for conventional spacelift would be mandatory. That translates into a paradigm shift, Penn adds, a culture change in rethinking and redesigning all the major components of a space plane system. Vehicle reliabilities must approach those of commercial aircraft, as closely as possible, he says.

Suborbital foothold

Hitching the public space tourism star to NASA's slow moving space transportation train is a non-starter, declares Patrick Collins, a professor of economics at Azabu University in Japan. He believes there are "terrible negative economic effects" of NASA's monopoly in this area.

Collins worries that NASA does not appear keen on encouraging the fullest commercial use of space, as required by U.S. Federal law. Rather, the space agency may just defend the short-term economic interests of itself and its clients at the expense of U.S. taxpayers.

"That would be very disappointing", Collins says, if NASA refuses to fund the only promising commercial activity - public space travel. "The overriding issue in the United States today is surely the economy. And space under NASA is not making the contribution it could and should," he complains.

The good news, Collins concludes, is that the X Prize purse of $10 million is finally together. Indeed, numbers of teams are vying for the cash. Innovative approaches to building suborbital vehicles around the world are underway.

To win the X Prize, a team must build and fly a reusable spacecraft able to carry three persons to suborbital space, 62 miles (100 kilometers), and back. X Prize entrants must also demonstrate reusability of their spacecraft by flying twice within a two-week period.

"It's sad that it has to be so slow," Collins feels, "but starting with suborbital is certainly one way to get there÷even without any of the $25 billion a year that governments spend."

[Edited on 14-12-2002 by Midnight Mutilator]


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