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Space Tourism – Getting Close to Blast Off?

Scheduled joy rides to the cosmos are taking longer than expected to materialise. That's not stopped proponents from staking big money and big reputations on its eventual success. 

"How would you like to take a rocket ride into the blackness of space, float around in zero gravity, look down on stunning views of the earth and come back an astronaut?" Stephen Attenborough already knows your answer. As Commercial Director of Virgin Galactic, he has watched 600 people pay 200,000 USD each to reserve a seat on such a flight. And when he recently asked a crowd of several hundred people who can afford the steep fare, nearly every hand in the room shot up (see video on YouTube).  

Winning over these customers – and the prestige that comes with – is fuelling a space race that sounds as if it came from a comic book. Featuring lots of sexy rocket science, the plot centres on a macho contest of billionaire high-rollers. Who will first conquer tourism's final frontier: Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Elon Musk or Tony Stark?

Is There Really a Market For This?

Ok, Tony Stark actually does come from a comic book. But if he, aka Ironman, were a real person, surely he'd be in the midst of the fray. Indeed, he probably would have been among the 7 tourists who since 2001 already have gone galactic. All of them tagged along on Soyuz missions operated by the Russian government, paying about 25 million USD each for a package holiday to the stars. One of the travellers, billionaire creator of Microsoft Office, Charles Simonyi, liked it so much he went twice, in 2007 and 2009. Then Soyuz shut the door on amateur astronauts, which fuelled the search for alternatives. Six years on, the aim is to provide a private service available not only to the mega-rich but also to the merely super-rich. Demand is sufficient to fund regular, commercial launches, says a 2012 market study commissioned by the US government's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and conducted by The Tauri Group. Based on a survey of high-net-worth individuals, Tauri reckons that over the next decade, somewhere between 200 and 1,200 punters a year will be willing to pay 100,000-200,000 USD to ride a rocket. This would be a 'lite' version of Simonyi and company's 1-2 week orbital jaunts. It would be a sub-orbital flight similar to the pioneering missions around 1960 of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard – not even a three-hour tour.

Boldly Going Where Not Many Have Gone Before

In the starting blocks are three prominent plutocrats. Bezos is behind Blue Origin, which he funds from his Amazon-founding fortune, but is run and owned entirely separately from the online retailer. Branson is backing Virgin Galactic, an extension of his forays into entertainment, travel and just about everything. Musk, founder of Internet payment company PayPal, is the force and wallet driving SpaceX. Yet space tourism is not exclusively for celebrity billionaires. Sierra Nevada Corporation, another contender, was founded by rocket engineers, as is XCOR Aerospace. None of these are publicly traded, notes Credit Suisse's Equity Analyst Reto Hess, but XCOR is open to outside investors. So too is Virgin Galactic, which has sold a 38 percent stake for 400 million USD to Aabar Investments, part of oil-rich Abu Dhabi's sovereign wealth fund. Deep pockets surely are useful in this sector. Rocketplane Kistler filed for bankruptcy in 2010, and Armadillo Aerospace, founded by the inventor of video-games Doom and Quake, John Carmack, folded in 2013. Orbital Sciences left the tourism field to merge with Alliant Techsystems, after one of its rockets exploded early in 2014.        

Easier to Say Than Do

More infamous was a crash later that year, this time of a Virgin Galactic test flight that killed one of its two pilots. Although Virgin's Attenborough says that all of its advance-paid customers are holding on to their tickets, the mishap highlighted a rocket's risk to humans. There are others, too. Re-entering the atmosphere from outer space can go awry, leading to break-up or a bounce back into space, explains Daniel Scuka of the Spacecraft Operations team at the European Space Agency. Gravity forces of blast-off and blast-in could push passengers over the edge of ill health. Finally, regular rocket traffic could re-punch the hole in the stratosphere's ozone layer. What was already damaged by fugitive refrigerants and aerosol propellants, argues a research team led by University of Colorado Professor Darin Toohey, could be eroded significantly by spaceships' exhaust fumes.

The Joy of Joyriding

Still, it's hard not to want to go astro when listening to one who's done it, Virgin Galactic's Chief Pilot Dave MacKay (see video on YouTube). The former fighter flyer exudes 'The Right Stuff' as he describes the mission. A blast off that compares to launching a jet off an aircraft carrier or racing a nitro-fuelled dragster. Glide around weightless in the silent blackness of space, while gazing down at the curved blue earth. Then hit the skids of re-entry and finally coast to a Space-Shuttle-style landing on a runway deep in the desert. If that's not enough, there's the chance to see stars amidst the stars. Among the celebrity sign-ons for Virgin's spaceshots are physicist Stephen Hawking, actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks and Ashton Kutscher, plus singers Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. (Not all on the same mission – that would happen only in a comic book.)

More Than Tourism

Whether all this will add up to commercial success is yet to be seen. Regulatory costs will be high, notes Credit Suisse's Hess, especially after the Virgin crash. And a more serious accident could turn all the business plans into a puff of smoke and twisted metal. Then again, failure in tourism would not necessarily doom these enterprises altogether. There are plenty of other interested space users who might pick up the spare capacity: satellite launchers, medical researchers and weapons developers, to name the most obvious.

Curb Your Enthusiasm

If you're itching to sign up, steady on. At start-up in 2005, Virgin Galactic planned to begin commercial launches in 2008. This was steadily pushed back to 2015, which now looks impossible due to the 2014 crash. Blue Origin also has drifted from early plans of regular launches by 2010. Today's best guess is that the first truly tourist flight will come earliest in 2017. Perhaps the promoters' excess optimism can be excused, given that even third-party observers have succumbed to overenthusiasm. In 2008, the US FAA's Associate Administrator, George Nield, predicted "multiple companies" doing commercial launches by 2015. In 2012, Nield forecast "a billion dollar industry" by 2021. At this point, that wildly outstrips Tauri's brightest scenario from its 2012 study for the FAA. Nonetheless, it suggests that for this business – eventually – the sky won't be the limit.