For decades after Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth in 1961, the notion that space travel could ever be possible—or affordable—for ordinary people remained the stuff of Hollywood fantasy and comic strips. Now the dream is on the launchpad. The quickest of trips—five minutes of weightlessness and spectacular views—is a viable business proposition. Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which recently unveiled its SpaceShipTwo, is only one of several competitors that hope to introduce flights costing a mere $200,000 apiece in the next few years, eventually bringing the price tag down to $20,000.
These suborbital tourism flights are only the beginning of what many executives and entrepreneurs hope will be a breakthrough in the commercial business of sending vessels beyond the atmosphere. So far the aerospace business, which includes satellite launching as well as human-spaceflight programs, has been dominated by companies like Boeing and Arianespace, which cater to governments, the military and big commercial customers. Prices, which run into the tens of millions of dollars, reflect this fact. Space for the masses (or at least the well-heeled masses) is the entrepreneur's entree. If it works out—and many people think it's a good bet—it could have an impact beyond tourism to satellite launching and orbital missions, both manned and unmanned. That would open up a vast new market for space—private spaceship builders, outfitters, insurers, travel agents and spaceport contractors.
Much of this is still pie in the sky, but the first step, suborbital tourism, is not. Virgin Galactic is planning to begin 12 to 18 months of test flights in July. The six-passenger SpaceShipTwo will be carried to an altitude of 15km by a jet-powered mother ship, the WhiteKnightTwo. Then SpaceShipTwo will fire its rocket—the current design has it fuelled by rubber and laughing gas, though this may change—shooting the craft on a 90-second joyride during which it will reach a maximum speed of 4000 km per hour—more than three times the speed of sound. Passengers will be pinned in their seats by G-forces equivalent to four times the strength of Earth's gravitational pull as it climbs to 109 kms, where they will experience five minutes of weightlessness before the ship "feathers" its wings into an upright position to begin its descent. If all goes well, thrill-seekers can hope to start boarding in 2010 for the ultimate in adventure travel.
Competitors are in hot pursuit. Rocketplane Global, Inc., of Oklahoma, claims to be "neck and neck" with Virgin. Unlike SpaceShipOne, Rocketplane's XP vehicle is a one-stage affair. "It looks like a plane, takes off like a plane," says Rocketplane business associate George French III, who also envisions commercial flights by 2010. "The main difference is that this plane goes into space."
XCOR Aerospace in Mojave is also developing a ship, Xerus, that will take off and land from a runway. The company has not set a date for a launch. XCOR was granted a license by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2004 giving permission to fly its Sphinx demonstration vehicle—a manned rocketplane designed as a forerunner to Xerus—on up to 35 test missions by the end of 2006. The company declines to specify what stage Xerus' development has reached, stating simply that it is in "the design phase" and that it prefers to be judged by results rather than promises. But it is well respected in aerospace circles, in particular for its EZ-Rocket, a rocket-propelled airplane that has flown 25 times and set aviation records. NASA is among XCOR's fans; the firm has just completed tests on a methane-burning rocket engine technology that the space agency hopes to use on lunar expeditions.
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, is funding Blue Origin, which is building a ship with a three-man conical capsule that takes off and lands vertically, akin to the lunar landing module. Blue Origin flew a prototype ship, Goddard, for 40 seconds in Texas in 2006. Since then the firm has begun building a second test vehicle, which has led to some skepticism as to whether Bezos is on track to meet his declared deadline of operating once-a-week tourist flights by 2010. Bezos, however, has given no specific timeline.
Big corporations are also getting into the act. Astrium—a subsidiary of the multibillion-dollar European aerospace corporation EADS, the owner of Airbus—hopes to get a passenger space jet off the ground by 2012, using a conventional jet engine for takeoff and rocket engines to go from 12km to 60km in altitude in a white-knuckle 80 seconds, at which point the rockets will be switched off and inertia will carry the ship to more than 100km above Earth.
Since Gagarin's pioneering flight, close to 500 people have followed in his tracks, but only five of them were private paying passengers. Virgin Galactic anticipates sending 600 new astronauts in just its first year of operation and has already put 100 ticketholders through rigorous G-force testing on a centrifuge in Pennsylvania. Rocketplane claims to have a waiting list, too, though it won't say how long, and is pursuing corporate link-ups, including offering ticket contests with Nestlé in France and the UTV television network in India. The technology for suborbital flights is considered sound. While the main protagonists play down talk of a new "space race" and emphasize safety, bragging rights are clearly at stake. "A lot of people have screamed and shouted that they are going to build a wonderful spaceship long before Virgin, and it's clearly total rubbish," says Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic. "Our only race is with ourselves in terms of the safety of our project. We are going to get this absolutely right."
Tourism isn't the only game in town. Entrepreneurs are also working on ships to take cargo into low Earth orbit. Satellites are one obvious opportunity, but entrepreneurs are also aiming to help service the International Space Station in 2010, when NASA discontinues the space shuttle. Having axed the X-33, a single-stage-to-orbit spaceliner that was supposed to replace the shuttle, in 2001, NASA is encouraging entrepreneurs to take up the slack. It has allocated $500 million in seed money for private partners to develop cargo services to low Earth orbit. "It's very important to turn to industry for technologies," says Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston. "We want to positively encourage this market. It could serve not only NASA but other customers."
XCOR expects to be able to carry up to 50kg of extra weight on Xerus, allowing for small satellites or scientific research racks, and Virgin Galactic is planning for 50kg to 100kg. PayPal billionaire Elon Musk has also taken up the challenge. He formed Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) in 2002 to build commercial launch services for satellites and cargo; it's now developing two rockets and a seven-person crew capsule. The goal is to take cargo to the space station by 2010 and, a year or two later, to start ferrying passengers. In a test launch last year in the South Pacific, SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket reached an altitude of 321 km—at an estimated cost of $7 million, compared with the $500 million cost of a shuttle mission. This was the second of two test-flights and both failed to achieve orbit. A review by SpaceX—carried out with the help from NASA and the Pentagon—concluded that Falcon 1's problems were minor and that it could be considered "operational." After a third test-flight, SpaceX plans to launch a satellite for the Malaysian space agency, RazakSat, by April.
Farther down the road, entrepreneurs have their sights on rapid "point to point" Earth transportation. Virgin Galactic, for example, hopes that phase two of its business plan will involve pioneering suborbital flights that could whisk paying passengers from New York to Australia in under two hours. That would revolutionize the commercial airplane business. Those ambitions may not be achieved for decades, but the world will soon be a big step closer.