In his book, Entering Space, Dr. Robert Zubrin argues that just as the survival of early humans depended upon their ability to adapt to the harsh environments into which they migrated, so too does the survival of our modern society depend on our mastery of the solar system, and our continued push to explore and expand. “Societies, like individuals,” says Zubrin, “grow when challenged and stagnate when not.”
Fifty years after the Wright Brothers first flight in 1903, commercial aviation was a thriving entity. Boeing launched the revolutionary 707 jet airliner in 1958. Today, millions of people travel by air each year. In the almost fifty years since the first manned space flight on April 12, 1961, fewer than 500 people have flown in space. That’s akin to the number of people who have stood on the summit of Mount Everest. What’s the problem?
If ours is to become a spacefaring civilization, we will first require a more cost-effective means of getting off the ground in the first place. Current space launch vehicles are simply too expensive for anyone but governments and large corporations to afford. Many believe the bureaucratic and financial obstacles to reaching low-earth orbit (LEO) are greater than the technological ones. It costs as much as $400 million each time NASA launches the Space Shuttle. Expendable launch vehicles are less expensive, but they are still on the order of $100 million or more per launch.
There is no question that getting to space is difficult, and it requires a huge expenditure of energy, but current launch costs are thought to be overly inflated for a variety of reasons, most notably the fact that the majority of today’s technology is derived from military missile programs, where performance and payload capability outweighed cost considerations. Because of this, no provision for reusability of components was made.
As a result, it costs roughly $10,000 (or more) to throw one pound of payload into orbit. If airliners were operated in the same manner as space launch vehicles, with one flight per ship, the commercial air transport industry as we know it would cease to exist in a matter of hours.
There is a significant movement now underway to decrease the cost and complexity of reaching orbit, with the long-term goal being an order-of-magnitude price reduction to somewhere around $1,000 per pound. Perhaps more importantly, this movement promises to wrest control of human spaceflight away from NASA and place it into the hands of private entities.
Two important criteria must be met to achieve this cost reduction: (1) space vehicles must be at least partially reusable, and; (2) the frequency of flights to space must increase.
In the early 1990s, it was believed that a growing need for satellite delivery would spur private industry development of these types of launch vehicles, and space startups such as Kistler Aerospace were formed to meet this demand. However, this market did not materialize as predicted, and some analysts now think it may even be diminishing.
But there is still hope. Several companies and organizations are now focusing their energy on a new market, one that research has shown might have huge potential: Space Tourism.
The term *space tourism* has come to be used by the media to describe a sector of the tourism industry in which members of the general public pay for a flight to and from space, experiencing anything from a short suborbital flight to a long-duration stay in low-earth orbit (LEO). Space tourism has long been thought to have great potential to drive the price of reaching orbit down to reasonable levels, but until recently, this perceived market did not exist at all.
The first space tourist, an American entrepreneur and engineer named Dennis Tito, launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, atop a Soyuz rocket on April 28, 2001. He spent almost eight days in orbit, and six days docked to the International Space Station (ISS). In preparation for launch, Tito passed cosmonaut-caliber physical exams and trained as part of the crew of Soyuz TM-32 at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia.
The flight didn’t come cheap or easy: Tito payed roughly US$20 million for his weeklong orbital vacation, and there was considerable debate between NASA and the Russian Space Agency, Rosaviacosmos, as to whether or not private citizens such as Tito should be allowed on the ISS. Even after Tito was aboard the station, Dan Goldin, then NASA administrator, complained to Congress of the “incredible stress” the space tourist had placed on the agency by his presence on the ISS. The Russians, of course, denied that Tito had caused any interruption of normal station operations. An official at Russia’s Mission Control Center stated that “Tito’s presence … in no way harmed the work of either the permanent or visiting crew.”
As the first paying passenger in space, Dennis Tito helped to break down some of the existing social and political barriers to personal spaceflight. While part of NASA’s mission seems to be that of opening the solar system for all of humanity, the tensions surrounding Tito’s flight clearly showed the agency’s resistance to this kind of endeavor.
But NASA’s culture only reflected the attitude of virtually everyone else: Space is reserved for astronauts, national heroes like Gagarin, Shepard and Glenn; it’s just too dangerous, too technical and too physically challenging for the rest of us. Tito helped to change this type of thinking. “If I have anything to say about it,” he reported while aboard the ISS, “I will do my best to communicate to people how great an experience this is. One does not have to be superhuman to adapt to space.”
Recent market research (PDF, 2.2M) seems to indicate that there is great potential interest in public flights to space, especially those to orbit which include stays in an orbiting habitat such as the ISS or a commercial on-orbit hotel or research facility.
It won’t be long now.