Have Spacesuit, Will Travel
By David A. Fryxell
Perhaps no one noticed the tragic irony of timing. In late January, the New Mexico state legislature began considering Gov. Bill Richardson's ambitious plan for a $225 million spaceport that would launch millionaire tourists to the edge of outer space, courtesy of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. And on Jan. 28, the world marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire high-school teacher who would have been the planet's first space tourist.
Instead of becoming the first civilian in space, McAuliffe and six other astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger became the victims of a fiery explosion that destroyed the shuttle just 73 seconds after launch. The cause of the disaster turned out to be frighteningly tiny: A faulty O-ring seal let hot gases weaken a critical mounting, which failed and let the top of a booster rocket rupture the shuttle's external fuel tank. The margin of error in spaceflight is as gossamer as stardust, as horrified Americans discovered that January day in 1986; even if the crew survived the initial blast, no one could have lived through the cockpit's 200-mph crash landing.
McAuliffe had been chosen as the first in a new NASA "teacher in space" program. The honor of becoming the first civilian in space would have to wait 15 years, until Dennis Tito, a 60-year-old millionaire investment fund manager and ex-NASA rocket scientist, paid $20 million for the privilege. Tito bought a ride on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and spent 10 days aboard the International Space Station. The Russians took another tycoon, South African Internet millionaire Mark Shuttleworth, age 28, into space before temporarily suspending tourism operations after a second US Space Shuttle disaster, the breakup on re-entry of the Columbia. That 2003 tragedy claimed another seven lives and again put the shuttle program on hold.
Sending humans into space has proven more complicated and more costly—at least in terms of lives—than early science-fiction dreamers ever imagined. In the 1958 juvenile novel Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, Robert A. Heinlein's hero Kip Russell needed little more than the titular spacesuit and some "insidious space pirates" to be on his way to the moon. In the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, a Pan Am spacecraft ferries visitors to a space station as effortlessly as 1968 airplane passengers shuttled between New York and Boston. The first space tourist's actual trip in 2001 proved far more arduous—and by then Pan Am was defunct, another reminder of the uncertainties inherent in the business of defying gravity.
As of October 2005, a total of 448 people had reached "outer space" according to the US definition of that accomplishment. Depending on how you count, 22 people have died on spaceflights, while another 11—including Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space—perished in training. Not even counting training deaths, that means roughly five percent of the humans launched into space have died in spaceflights. Because many astronauts have launched more than once, that works out to about two percent of all manned spaceflight launches having killed their crew. Although we like to think the US is technologically superior, the fatality rate for our Space Shuttle and the Russian Soyuz is roughly the same.
Space-tourism boosters like to compare the enterprise to skydiving or other thrill sports, although the actual experience promised at the proposed Southwest Regional Spaceport will be more akin to riding a rollercoaster, complete with crushing g-forces. To put the risks of spaceflight into perspective, consider that each year about 350,000 people complete more than 3 million skydiving jumps; about 30 die in parachuting accidents. If skydivers perished instead at the rate of astronauts, two out of every 100 attempts, 60,000 parachute-laden corpses would scatter the landscape annually. One suspects the Federal Aviation Administration would soon put a stop to the sport. Or consider rollercoaster riding: Of the 900 million rides in the US each year, only about four prove fatal for the rider. A fatality rate similar to spaceflight would kill 18 million riders annually—and the roller-coaster business.
Yet it might take only one high-profile disaster to destroy the space tourism business in which New Mexico proposes to invest $100 million of oil and gas revenue, plus $35 million from other state funds. A single crash of the Concorde—another technological toy targeted at millionaires—helped permanently ground that supersonic fleet. Just four years after the spectacular demise of the Hindenburg, the last of the zeppelins was dismantled for parts.
Even the economic-impact study touted by the governor and Economic Development Department, compiled by the Arrowhead Center for Entrepreneurship and Business Development at NMSU, warns, "Perhaps the most troublesome and therefore most important technological force New Mexico faces in developing and managing the Southwest Regional Spaceport is safety. A fatal accident in commercial aviation barely attracts attention beyond the evening news and causes only a minor hiccup in air travel, if having any effect at all. A fatal accident in a NASA mission, for example the Shuttle, grounded the fleet for nearly two years and caused a national debate about the merits of manned spaceflight. An accident, which is certainly possible in the emerging commercial space market, could be fatal to the industry if not to particular individuals."
Most experts believe the Virgin Galactic flights, using the next generation of Burt Rutan's Ansari X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne, will be safer than previous spaceflights—if for no other reason than they are less ambitious, aiming less high than Alan Shepard achieved in 1961 as the first American in space. Nonetheless, at a conference sponsored by the California Space Authority in early December, Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR Aerospace in Mojave, Calif., cautioned, "Let's not kid ourselves. There is at least as much work ahead of us as there is behind us. . . . No mode of transportation has ever been developed without some loss of human life. . . and this isn't going to be the first.
"It's not if—it's when."
But the numbers bandied about in mid-December, when Richardson and Branson jointly announced the spaceport plans and Virgin Galactic's decision to base its operations here, were not of fatalities or even risk ratios. Mostly the talk was of dollar signs.
The plan calls for construction of the $225 million spaceport on a remote 27-acre site at Upham, between Las Cruces and Truth or Consequences. Virgin Galactic will locate its world headquarters and mission control at the spaceport, and also build "a five-star destination experience" resort where passengers and their families can stay during three to four days of preflight training. Virgin signed a 20-year lease at $1 million annually for the initial five years, with the rate thereafter to be adjusted depending on the business' growth. Virgin itself promised to bring at least 200 new jobs to the state.
"This is a historic day for our great state, and particularly southern New Mexico," the governor proclaimed. "With Virgin at the controls, enthusiasts from around the world will fly to space, routinely and safely, just a few years from now. And they will be flying from the world's first purpose-built spaceport here in New Mexico. I am excited that New Mexico will be on the ground floor of this new industry, and I know this will mean new companies, more high-wage jobs and opportunities that will move our state's economy forward."
Joining Branson and the governor at a Santa Fe press conference was "Dallas" actress Victoria Principal. She's one of the initial 100 "founders" who've paid the full $200,000 fare to be on one of the first two-and-a-half-hour flights of SpaceShipTwo, and is also serving as a pitchwoman of sorts for Virgin, trying to interest more women in the flights. About 85 percent of the initial group are male, including Sir Richard himself and his father, who will be 90 when liftoffs begin in late 2008 or early 2009. "For me, this is a dream come true, to go into space and look back and see the earth, my home," Principal told reporters.
Following the news conference, Branson and Rick Homans, the secretary
of economic development and head of the fledgling spaceport authority,
helicoptered to Upham. There they were joined by 18 children from a Las
Cruces elementary school (who presumably came by bus). Branson and the
schoolchildren watched as 11 models of SpaceShipOne blasted off.
"New Mexico has a long history in the commercial space industry," says Homans. "The moment has now arrived for New Mexico to take the lead and make history worldwide. New Mexico's commercial spaceport has the potential to change the face of our state and become a driving force for our economy, creating thousands of good-paying jobs and millions in revenue. We are on the ground floor of a new industry that will allow us to diversify the occupations and pay scales of our citizens and improve the lives of future generations to come."
According to Lonnie Sumpter, director of the New Mexico Office of Space Commercialization, headquartered in Las Cruces, we beat several other states to the punch with the Virgin Galactic deal and spaceport announcement. "We competed with Florida, California, Texas—at one point, a total of 14 different states wanted this," he says. "The only way we can lose it now is if the legislature fails to come up with the money."
That funding is expected to be stretched out over three years, with $33 million in severance-tax bonds issued in 2006 and 2007 and $34 million in 2008 "as certain milestones are met," according to a news release from the governor's office. The state would also pony up $25 million from transportation funding for spaceport roads, plus $10 million already allocated to space commercialization. The federal government and southern New Mexico taxpayers will be expected to cough up the remaining $90 million. A quarter-cent gross receipts tax increase would raise $5 million-$10 million a year for the spaceport; officials from the Economic Development Department were unable to say which counties would be asked to impose the tax hike, or whether the tax might extend beyond Sierra and Dona Ana counties, where the spaceport will be located.
For Sumpter, who took over the space commercialization office only last fall but who has been pushing New Mexico to join the space race for 15 years, the spaceport announcement represents the fruition of a long-held dream. He says, "This is a new industry that people have been working on since 1991," when the Southwest Space Task Force (now the New Mexico Space Alliance) was formed. "It started as a grassroots movement by people who understood the potential of rockets and space."
Why is the time seemingly right at last for commercial space enterprises to take off? "The technology has caught up with the dream," says Sumpter. "SpaceShipOne won the X Prize with just a $25 million program. If they'd used old technology, the old ways, it would have cost many times over that. It brings a lot of advantages in structure, propulsion and the whole conceptual approach to going into space. SpaceShipOne is an entirely different architecture than anything that's gone before—it's an inspired design."
James Oberg, an NBC News space consultant who's written 10 books on space and spent 22 years as a space engineer in Houston (www.jamesoberg.com), agrees. "Why now? It's a different culture, newer materials, plus the people—these space enterprises have the financial backing of an amazing array of a half-dozen billionaires who see this activity as fun, socially useful and potentially profitable."
Besides Branson, whose Virgin Group encompasses more than 200 companies and took in $10.76 billion in revenue last year (more than the state of New Mexico), billionaires investing in the space biz include Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos (see box) and Paul G. Allen, the Microsoft mogul who backed Rutan's winning entry in the original X Prize competition. Since Allen spent $25 million to win the $10 million prize, presumably he sees a larger future in commercial space ventures.
The notion that free enterprise and the profit motive, rather than government and scientific discovery or international bragging rights, might lead us into the next space age goes back even further. When Princeton professor Gerard K. O'Neill envisioned human colonies in space in his book The High Frontier in 1977, he thought the commercialization of outer space would make it possible. That same year, O'Neill founded the Space Studies Institute, which continues to fund research in space manufacturing and commercial resources. "This whole business is much too important to be left to the federal government," O'Neill explained in a 1981 interview.
Oberg says, "Historically, private enterprise has been the fastest and cheapest way to get there, instead of getting where you want to go by some big government master plan. Government has to get out of the way, or else it dominates and suffocates."
But reality has continually fallen short of commercial space boosters' expectations: O'Neill envisioned solar-power-generating colonies at stable locations in near-earth orbit called Lagrange points, dubbed "L4" and "L5," which inspired the "L5 Society" and its slogan "L5 in '95." In a new essay for the third edition of O'Neill's book, however, George Friedman of the Space Studies Institute points out that slogan hopefully referred to 1995, not 2095.
Space manufacturing and other industrial applications have remained tantalizing but elusive. In an interview with the newsletter of the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce, Sumpter sketched the possibilities: "Take the ordinary ball bearing. Those made on earth are not exactly round. Without the influence of gravity (as in space), you can produce a perfectly round ball bearing. Producing drugs in space can achieve a higher degree of purity than is attainable on earth. Even our DNA can be researched in space when it's not possible, outside the body, on earth. If you separate the crystalline proteins that make up our DNA in order to study them, gravity makes them go flat. That's not a problem in the zero gravity of space. We're just beginning to see all the possibilities our way of life can benefit through educational and research activities in zero gravity."
The reality of the spaceport plan, however, shows how frustratingly far off such practical benefits of space remain. Besides Virgin Galactic, Sumpter says, the Southwest Regional Spaceport will initially have four or five tenants. Only two—UP Aerospace and Starchaser—address what might be described as non-entertainment commercial space applications. UP Aerospace targets the academic research market ("Collegiate space launches our specialty"), offering to launch 110-pound payloads up to 140 miles for "micro-gravity" experiments. The Connecticut-based company hopes to launch at the Upham spaceport—even though the site as yet has zero infrastructure—as soon as late next month, and Sumpter says everything is "on target" for that inaugural blastoff. British-based Starchaser ("Dedicated to Putting Britain Back Into Space"), which also has space-tourism plans, says it's "developing technology and reusable launch vehicles focused on addressing the growing micro-satellite launch market."
The spaceport's other tenants are the X Prize Cup, the spaceship-building competition, which will again host a "Countdown to the X Prize Cup" at the Las Cruces airport in fall 2006 (see "Pie in the Sky," October 2005 Desert Exposure), and the newly formed Rocket Racing League. Peter H. Diamandis, the entrepreneur behind the X Prize Cup, is also one of the league's co-founders. Sounding straight out of science fiction, the New York-based league promises to create a sort of spaceflight NASCAR, with competitions across the US culminating in a championship at the X Prize Cup event. The Futron report believes the Rocket Racing League can bring $62 million in economic activity and 630 new jobs to New Mexico by 2015, $78 million and 780 jobs by 2020, not counting "expenditures by spectators attending league finals at the spaceport."
Other contributors to the Futron study's $752 million in economic impact and 5,280 jobs created by the spaceport (counting various multipliers) include spending by visitors to the spaceport and at various spaceport events ($69 million, 770 jobs by 2020), and a broadly described boost from "manufacturing and headquarters operations" ("in excess of $200 million, 1,000-1,500 "new space vehicle and aircraft manufacturing, headquarters and support services jobs").
The bulk of the long-term economic impact of the Southwest Regional Spaceport, however, comes from what the Futron report lumps together as "space transportation." That includes transporting people as well as cargo and adds up to $370 million and 2,530 jobs by 2015, increasing to $406 million and 2,770 jobs by 2020. According to Futron, "smallsat launch activities" will account for two percent of this pot of gold.
The biggest contributor, by far, to this largest component of the spaceport's economic boom? "Space tourism operations are expected to account for approximately 82 percent of this impact in 2020," according to the Futron study. That's $333 million of economic impact and 2,271 jobs.
Over and above these Futron figures, of course, is the economic impact of building the spaceport itself. But it's easy to misread these numbers. The Futron study, for example, seems to promise an annual construction impact of $331 million and 2,460 jobs. A close reading, however, shows that these figures are only attributable to 2007, when construction is seen as peaking. Over the three-year construction period, 2006-2008, the impact totals $516 million, with an average of 1,260 jobs annually. The NMSU study uses a more conservative multiplier for economic impact from construction, coming up with a total of $480 million, but a slightly higher average job boost of 1,450.
But this benefit is not intrinsic to the idea of a spaceport, of course. You could spend $225 million on building anything in southern New Mexico—educational facilities, a theme park, an ark—and the same temporary economic boost would occur.
So the question of whether this particular project
is a smart investment or a risky boondoggle comes down to the largest
projected ongoing contributor
to New Mexico's future economy. At roughly 44 percent of the Futron study's
total spaceport benefit by 2020, that key factor is unquestionably space
tourism. The Southwest Regional Spaceport will succeed or fail on the
prospect of convincing people—initially, at least, strictly a market
of millionaires—to pay six-figure fees for five minutes in space.
Space tourism has been touted as "the next big thing" almost as long as flying cars and jetpacks (with which the concept was lumped in a 2003 MSNBC report, "Seven Flights of Fancy That Fizzled"). But it's always been just beyond the next technological breakthrough or business brainstorm. "I think tourist projects are a bit too early for space," Russian cosmonaut Sergei Avdeyev told the BBC in 2001, when Dennis Tito's flight was announced. "With ordinary tourism, you go buy a tour and fly off. You get certain conditions: If you don't like your room, you can change it; if you don't get enough fruit at the hotel, you can go out and buy more. All of these things that surround tourism are not envisaged here."
The Futron report concedes, "As recently as five years ago, space tourism suffered from the 'snicker' factor: many people in the space industry refused to take the concept seriously." The report maintains, however, that the "snicker factor has been largely dispelled" by the flights of Tito, Shuttleworth and Greg Olsen (a 60-year-old New Jersey businessman and scientist whose $20 million Russian trip lifted off last fall, after the post-Columbia hiatus), by the $10 million Ansari X Prize, and by ventures such as Virgin Galactic. The report notes that a fourth space tourist, Japanese businessman Daisuke Enomoto, has signed with Space Adventures, the firm that brokered the earlier Soyuz flights, to blast off in October. The Futron analysts conclude, "Space tourism is the segment of the overall space industry with the biggest potential for growth for the foreseeable future."
The NMSU economic-impact study agrees: "In scrutinizing the various indicators of market segment attractiveness, numerous sources point to the space tourism industry. This is the only space activity that can support a high number of flights, which is essential to bringing costs down. . . . NASA and the US Space Transportation Association have published a report acknowledging that space tourism was likely to start soon and could grow into the largest activity in space. It is estimated that space tourism will generate at least $1 billion a year within 20 years."
That would be only a fraction of the $400 billion annual US tourism industry, the report notes. The success of SpaceShipOne, it adds, "has opened up the market for space tourism because it has indicated that such an endeavor is possible at a reasonable cost and probably within an acceptable range of risk." (Tomorrow's space tourists, however, might find that hedging "probably" a tad worrisome.)
It's not just the spaceport report authors who think the time has finally come for space tourism to take off. Patricia Grace Smith, the FAA's associate administrator for commercial space transportation, told the Space.com Web site that suborbital space tourism of the sort Virgin Galactic envisions could handle 15,000 passengers and generate $700 million in revenues annually by 2021.
John Spencer, president of the Space Tourism Society, said at the California Space Authority's conference in December, "Space tourism is going to succeed, because people want to have a unique life-changing experience. They desire it. They crave it. They need it.
"We are going to have sex in space," Spencer added, going where Virgin Galactic at least has no announced plans to go. "It's a frontier that needs to be explored, just as any other frontier."
There's even a guidebook for those who are raring to go: The Space Tourist's Handbook, published by Quirk Books and co-authored by Space Adventures president Eric Anderson and Joshua Piven.
Oberg doesn't think we should view space tourism as "frivolous" or be bothered that millionaires will be the first tourists. He likens it to auto racing, which "might seem frivolous but which pioneered all kinds of safety features in automobiles today. You'll get where you want to go as a consequence of having fun. We'll identify other space-transportation opportunities along the way, just as in previous transportation pushes, the way barnstorming contributed to the aviation industry.
"Rich people usually do things first," Oberg continues. "They spend a lot of money making services cheaper for everybody. They also absorb the risks."
Not every space expert thinks the space tourism
age is about to dawn at last, however. Henry R. Hertzfeld, a senior
research staff scientist at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington
University and former economics professor, says, "I tend to be the skeptic on this, although
I do wish Virgin Galactic and all of the other entrepreneurs success,
since this would be good for the entire space sector." Hertzfeld
cautions about the term "space tourism," noting, "Flying
to or into space is not the same as a trip to Cancun or Paris. Giving
the public the impression that it is a 'vacation' is seriously misleading
to the general public. It will be far more like 'adventure travel' than
real tourism, and it is something that not everyone would enjoy."
So the multi-million-dollar question for New Mexico's spaceport is whether there are enough people who would enjoy such a space adventure—and be willing and able to pay up to $200,000 for the privilege. Based on the reports about the Virgin Galactic announcement, that seems like a no-brainer. As cited in countless news stories, the company already has at least 38,000 people from 126 countries who've expressed an interest via its Web site (www.virgingalactic.com) and paid a "fully refundable" deposit. Or maybe it's 40,000 registrants from 120 countries, as it says in a statement from Richardson's office. At least 100 "founders"—some news reports put the figure at 120 or 150—have plunked down the full $200,000 fare to be among the first to fly. Even before the New Mexico announcement, Virgin Galactic director of operations Alex Tai said, "We've taken over $10 million in deposits and we've not really started to advertise."
Among the first jobs generated by the spaceport will no doubt be an Upham stringer for People magazine: Celebrities are whipping out their checkbooks to get onboard Virgin Galactic's maiden voyages. Besides Victoria Principal ("actress/skincare expert and space enthusiast," according to a press release from the governor's office), others who want to go include the musician Moby, "Star Trek" actor William Shatner, Aliens star Sigourney Weaver, architect Philippe Starck (who designed Virgin Galactic's logo and the look of the spaceport) and director Bryan Singer ("X-Men," "Superman Returns"). Among the more unlikely candidates for spaceflight are Stephen Hawking, the wheelchair-bound cosmologist, and a woman in her 90s who learned to skydive at age 85. The nonagenarian skydiver will be joined on one of the first flights by a honeymooning couple from Washington, DC, "George and Loretta," who have vowed to delay their wedding until the spacecraft is ready. Three of the seven passenger seats on the very first flight are already taken by "comped" passengers: Branson's elderly father, Ted, Sir Richard himself and SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan. When legislators complained, Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn quickly agreed to save one seat on the first flight for a New Mexican, to be named later. Seating on subsequent flights will be determined by a random drawing.
New Mexicans should keep in mind, however, that those initial, publicity-grabbing flights will take place not at the Southwest Regional Spaceport but in Mojave, Calif., where SpaceShipTwo will be built and tested. Virgin aims to begin flying in late 2008 or early 2009, before completion of the Upham facility. At least Gov. Richardson will get to fly in the inaugural New Mexico launch (unless he's defeated for re-election in the meantime or moves to the White House in 2008).
Once the initial flurry of celebrities and adventurous rich guys has been satisfied, will there be enough customers to keep Virgin Galactic's seats filled? The Futron report says no problem: Based on a 2002 Zogby survey of 450 people with incomes over $250,000 and/or net worth in excess of $1 million, the report forecasts a steady stream of space tourists. Up to 19 percent of those polled said they'd be likely to go for an experience similar to that Virgin will offer: a suborbital flight with 15 minutes of "exhilaration, weightlessness and seeing the Earth below, as did Alan Shepard, America's first astronaut" (Virgin Galactic passengers will actually get only five minutes of weightlessness), priced at $100,000. The Zogby writeup adds, "In the case of two-week orbital flights to an orbiting space station, a surprising seven percent of those wealthy individuals polled said they would be willing to pay today's price tag of $20 million for the experience. . . . The figure approaches 16 percent if prices come down to a 'mere' $5 million a ride."
These potential space tourists also said they'd prefer to fly from the US, rather than Russia, and they'd be more likely to take the trip if an orbiting space hotel awaited them.
Hertzfeld of the Space Policy Institute remains cautious, however. "It is significant that many people have anted-up down payments for reservations on these flights. It shows interest. But will they really pay the rest of the money?" he asks. "What happens if test vehicle(s) have problems or an accident? What happens if we make sizable progress in virtual reality technology so that someone can get most of the experience of space flight without leaving the Earth?"
The Futron projections for the New Mexico spaceport do include some reality-check assumptions: They assume each vehicle will carry an average of five, rather than seven passengers, and that in any given year available flights will be able to meet only half the passenger demand forecast in the Zogby poll. While initially assuming New Mexico will capture 75 percent of the market for suborbital flights, this figure drops to 50 percent by 2020 to reflect increased competition. Even with these caveats, the Futron projections for suborbital launches from 2010-2020 "should be considered an upper estimate."
Those projections show New Mexico launches rising from 61 in 2010 to 426 in 2020, with a total of 1,959 flights in the first 10 years of operation (2010-2019). At five passengers per flight, that's 9,795 space tourists if all the suborbital flights are devoted to carrying people rather than cargo. The NMSU study also forecasts flights, ranging from as few as 56 to as many as 1,221 over the first five years, but it assumes liftoffs begin here in 2006; the official announcement of the Virgin Galactic deal says "construction will begin in 2007 and should be completed by 2009/2010."
Almost 10,000 customers in the first decade might be enough to make the spaceport a going concern—but it's less than 20 percent of the passengers Virgin Galactic promised the state of New Mexico. The governor's press release says the company "plans to send 50,000 customers to space in the first 10 years of operation."
That's not a typo—though it does differ dramatically from the projections in both economic impact studies released by the state Economic Development Department. Other reports say that Virgin Galactic plans to send 700 people into space in the first 18 months, or 450 in the first year and 1,000 in year two. All those numbers are considerably more ambitious than what the Futron experts call their "upper estimate."
Crucial to expanding the market to meet those promises will be dropping the price from $200,000, which even Virgin officials concede is steep. Whitehorn has speculated that the price might drop to $50,000 by the fifth year of operation and $25,000 by year eight or nine. For those who still can't afford that fare, Virgin is planning a game show and an online contest to win a trip. There's also talk of financing options, and the possibility of redeeming Virgin frequent-flier miles.
"As the price comes down, more people will want to do this," says Sumpter of the space commercialization office. "You might be surprised at how many will want to go into space."
Asked if he would buy a ticket if he had $200,000
to spare, Sumpter doesn't hesitate: "Oh, yeah," he replies. "Oh,
yeah. Big time."
What will New Mexico-launched space tourists get for their $200,000? Here it's easy to get confused by the hoopla and lose sight of exactly what Virgin Galactic really proposes. If you're imagining blasting off from a launchpad like the Apollo astronauts and then orbiting the earth a couple of times, put away your checkbook. New Mexico space tourists will instead leave the ground via a 757-sized airplane, which will release the spacecraft at 50,000 feet. The spacecraft will then accelerate to 2,000 mph and rocket to about 70 miles up—the very edge of the technical definition of "outer space," less than two-thirds the 116-mile altitude achieved by Shepard in 1961. The whole trip—closer to an X-15 flight than riding a "rocketship"—will take less than three hours.
In space parlance, Virgin will offer a "UAB"—an "Up And Back." That's a lot easier to achieve than putting passengers in earth orbit, says Oberg—about 100 times easier, hence the hundred-fold difference in price from the $20 million Soyuz trips. "An up-down flight is plenty thrilling," he adds.
The $200,000 experience will begin with the trip to Upham—perhaps by helicopter, although presumably the site will have a paved road by then. Today, the future home of the Southwest Regional Spaceport is a dusty patch of land straddling Dona Ana and Sierra counties, a jouncing 20-mile trek on dirt roads from the Upham exit off I-25. The site is sandwiched between I-25 and the Rio Grande on the west and White Sands Missile Range on the east, north of Las Cruces. At an elevation of 4,600 feet, the site "is halfway to space already," Oberg quips.
"The thin air means a rocket doesn't have to accelerate through dense air," says Sumpter, "meaning it can carry more payload. With the dry air, you also don't have the corrosion problems you have at Cape Canaveral in Florida, where a piece of equipment can start to deteriorate in two to three years. At White Sands, it'll last forever."
The site's sheer remoteness and sunny weather—340 clear days a year—add to its advantages, Sumpter says. The NMSU study also cites the area's low real estate, manufacturing and labor costs, and Las Cruces' rock-bottom property taxes. It's also a plus to be able to build from scratch, rather than being saddled with a "legacy" facility—and Upham is about as "scratch" as you can get.
Before the spaceport can start launching tourists into space, an environmental impact statement has to be completed and the FAA must add the site to the five current federally licensed spaceports. "We hope to have that completed by October," says Sumpter, adding that licensing won't hold up the planned March UP Aerospace launch—"That's a special case because it's a very small vehicle. It gets to fly under amateur classification rules."
By the time tourists start to arrive in 2009 or 2010, the site will have been transformed. Virgin Galactic's HQ—designed by Starck to resemble the iris of a giant eye, specifically Sir Richard Branson's—will be 85 percent underground, to save air-conditioning costs (while increasing the construction cost). The other notable feature will be a 295-foot-wide, 12,000-foot-long runway, big enough to accommodate craft that might someday launch orbital ships. (Other sources say the runway will be 10,000 feet—all the numbers in this project seem, well, flexible. Will the spacecraft accelerate to 2,000 mph or 3,000 mph? Depends on whom you ask.) Presumably Virgin's "five-star" resort would also be somewhere nearby.
Preflight training and orientation will take just three and a half days. That's a good deal less rigorous than what orbital tourist Dennis Tito underwent, which included a Siberian wilderness survival course and 900 hours of classroom training. Virgin's customers will get only a basic medical assessment (though a Business Week report mentions a CT scan) and a familiarization tour, with perhaps a ride in White Knight 2, the carrier aircraft (also known as "Eve," after Branson's mother).
Virgin has contracted with Rutan's Scaled Composites company to build two carrier planes and five spacecraft, for an investment of $150 million, according to Whitehorn. Each spacecraft can carry seven passengers plus two crew in fully pressurized, airplane-like comfort.
But safety onboard the spacecraft won't be regulated
with anything like the scrutiny the FAA gives commercial airplanes.
That's because the Commercial Space Act of 2004 essentially tells the
FAA "hands off" for
eight years or until something bad happens. The FAA released a 123-page
draft of space tourism regulations in late December, but the rules mostly
consist of suggestions. Physical exams for passengers, for example, are
recommended but not required. Crews must be licensed and meet certain
requirements. Otherwise, the 2004 legislation "means that the FAA
has to wait for harm to occur or almost occur before it can impose restrictions,
even against foreseeable harm," according to the FAA draft. "Instead,
Congress requires that space flight participants be informed of the risks."
When the big day arrives, White Knight 2 will carry the spacecraft to launch altitude. On release, at about 50,000 feet, an engine fueled by a combination of rubber and nitrous oxide ("laughing gas")—much safer than traditional kerosene-based rocket fuel—will accelerate the spacecraft to more than 2,000 mph in less than 30 seconds. Reclining cabin seats will make passengers as comfortable as possible during launch as well as re-entry, when g forces will reach four to five times the pull of earth's gravity.
You might wonder how well Stephen Hawking or Branson's 90-year-old father would fare under the force of five g's. That's about the maximum g-force achieved on the mightiest roller coasters, although the Mindbender at Galaxyland Amusement Park in Edmonton, Alberta, delivers a record 6.5 g's. Alarmed by reports of brain injury and aneurysms from sustained g-forces on roller coasters, at least one state legislature, in New Jersey, has considered enacting limits: Front-to-back g-forces could not exceed 5.6 for more than one second.
A spokesperson for the Economic Development Department did not respond to an inquiry about the duration of g-forces onboard the proposed Virgin Galactic flights.
Once the crushing acceleration stops, at the edge of outer space, passengers will enjoy five minutes of weightlessness—tethered to their seats to enable safe floating—and views through large windows of the earth below, about 1,000 miles in every direction. They'll float around to the strains of David Bowie's "Space Oddity," chosen in a poll of Virgin Radio listeners. Passengers will be issued digital voice recorders to preserve their impressions, assuming they can be heard over the wailing of David Bowie.
"You will see the clarity of the solar system and the harshness of the sun," Virgin promises. "It will be humbling. It will be spiritual."
It may also be disconcerting, if passengers pay attention to the lyrics of "Space Oddity, which concludes:
Although SpaceShipTwo will not be identical to Rutan's orca-shaped winning design, it will incorporate SpaceShipOne's innovative "shuttlecock" re-entry scheme, in which the wings "feather" to ease the descent. After re-entry, the spacecraft resumes its glider shape for landing at the Upham spaceport.
"Possibly, later that evening," according to Virgin, "at
a magnificent gala dinner, you will be awarded your astronaut wings and
maybe even a part of the rocket motor used on your trip to keep as a
Before Virgin Galactic starts handing out rocket parts, however, it needs to actually get a vehicle that can reliably and routinely go "up and back" to the edge of space. Despite the technological achievement of Rutan's prizewinning creation, that vehicle does not yet exist, says Hertzfeld of the Space Policy Institute. "Although the FAA is trying to expedite the licensing process for this, there is a long way to building, testing, and certifying such a vehicle," he warns. "SpaceshipOne's flight was not without serious problems. We cannot assume that new vehicles will be ready to fly in a short period of time."
Marco Caceres, senior space analyst at the Teal Group, an aerospace research and consulting firm, echoed this argument in a Business Week interview shortly after Rutan's winning flights: "It flew to space three times, and each time it had significant problems. They certainly need to work out the kinks." Virgin's timeline is much too optimistic, according to Caceres, and its cost estimates are probably low. "The technology is too complex," he added. "All it takes are a few delays, and [costs] go sky high. . . . I'd be very impressed if they get to the point where they're launching three or four times a year" in the first year—versus Virgin's goal of more than 60 launches in year one.
Hertzfeld cites the example of the Falcon 1, a commercial space vehicle under development by SpaceX, which "was supposed to have its first test launch in 2003. There have been technical problems and it has been postponed until later this year. And that is a non-human-rated vehicle! There are many other examples of either long delays for new vehicles and/or cancellations of programs, both government and private.
"In short, I hesitate to make grandiose economic projections based on non-existent vehicles," Hertzfeld says. "We have enough trouble making good market projections even for different types of automobiles (e.g. SUVs are out of sync with the sudden rise in gas prices last year)."
Beyond the basic challenge of getting a spacecraft flying, there's the critical question of safety—on which most experts give Virgin and Rutan high marks. Virgin's three airlines have the best safety record in the world, and none has ever had a fatal crash. "Every time these guys fly, they're betting the company," says Sumpter. "They have to do everything to the highest fidelity."
"Burt Rutan integrates flight safety into the nuts and bolts of his vehicles," says Oberg. "In 30-40 years of developing vehicles, no one has ever been killed as a result of one of Rutan's vehicles. That's not an accident, so to speak."
Oberg also points out that suborbital flights are bound to be safer than what NASA attempts with the Shuttle. "NASA has to push much harder. Rutan's vehicle is like a homebuilt X-15, like flying 40 years ago. It's difficult to compare private spaceflights to NASA."
Rutan's basic approach—dropping a spacecraft from another vehicle at 50,000 feet—is also less risky than the familiar "blast off" approach. In a Space.com interview, Virgin Galactic president Whitehorn pointed out, "Any system which is ground-based has intrinsic issues with safety which an air-launched system does not have. It is intrinsically not very safe to sit a human being above a bomb and tons and tons and tons of liquid oxygen or liquid hydrogen or whatever liquid propellant you're using."
He added, "The north star of this project is safety. Safety is really at the top of people's lists as to why they think they're interested in flying a suborbital spaceflight."
In fact, however, only 25 percent of Virgin's "founding" space tourists said safety was an issue for them. "Happily," Stephen Attenborough, the company's head of astronaut relations, told New Scientist, "it's a lot more important to us."
Indeed, as Alex Tai, Virgin's director of operations,
told the California space conference in December, "This embryonic
industry will survive or fail on the safety that we can demonstrate
during the first few years."
It's the "fail" option Tai mentions that might concern New Mexico taxpayers who are investing more than $135 million in building a spaceport for this "embryonic industry." As the FAA noted in its draft regulations, "Spaceflight is inherently risky." Even The Space Tourist's Handbook, coauthored by the head of a space-tourism company, devotes several sections to surviving spaceflight disasters. (It's perhaps no coincidence that the other coauthor is best known for his work on The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook.)
"This is rocket science, and I do expect accidents," Oberg concedes. "It's a sad consequence whenever you're prospecting a new frontier—you push so hard that you kill people. If you don't, you're probably not pushing hard enough."
The NMSU spaceport study devotes several pages to the issue of liability in the event of an accident, noting, "The greatest and least predictable potential exposure arises from the possibility of a catastrophic launch vehicle accident." Besides "the potential hazard to the people of New Mexico," there's the risk of "enormous liability verdicts." The report suggests setting up a $10 million bond fund against disaster, and passage of a statute precluding passengers or their surviving kin from collecting damages, if passengers gave informed consent.
Even more serious than liability claims could be the damage to the image of space tourism, with a disaster splashed all over today's 24/7 news media. Much as the Hindenburg's fiery fate, memorably captured on newsreels, helped sink the zeppelin industry, a Challenger-type tragedy could prove impossible for space tourism to overcome. Prior to the Hindenburg's crash, after all, the rigid airships enjoyed an excellent safety record; today, however, that "oh the humanity!" disaster is all anyone remembers.
The supersonic Concorde may provide an even more apt analogy for how New Mexico's space tourism hopes could sour. Commercial service on four airlines began with high hopes on Jan. 21, 1976, and for most of its career the Concorde was the safest airliner in the world. Like space tourism flights, the Concorde targeted the well-do-to, millionaires and business executives with more money than time: Its 100 seats were priced at up to $12,000. Although the small Concorde fleet flew some 50,000 trips and carried 2.5 million passengers, it was plagued with financial problems. Braniff, the only US Concorde operator, lost money—with flights less than 25 percent booked—and ended its supersonic service after barely a year. Other carriers steeply discounted fares and flew less than a third full. After Air France flight 4590 crashed in Gonesse, France, on July 25, 2000, the already-troubled Concorde could never recover from the perception that it was not only pricey but unsafe. Commercial supersonic service was permanently grounded three years later.
There's an important difference between the Hindenburg or the Concorde and space tourism flights, of course: Zeppelins and supersonic jets at least had practical value, taking people from here to there. SpaceShipTwo will simply return its passengers to the remote spot in New Mexico from which it took off. As pure entertainment, not transportation, space tourism may prove even more vulnerable to bad news.
Compare instead the histories of spaceflight and of Disneyland, both of which have stretched over more or less the past 50 years. Since Disneyland opened its doors in 1955, an estimated 515 million visitors have gone through its doors—and all but nine have emerged alive. If five percent of Disneyland visitors had perished on Magic Mountain or some other thrill ride, as five percent of astronauts have died in the far more serious and dangerous ascent to space, it's hard to believe the theme park could have stayed in business—not with more than 25 million casualties.
Is that an unfair comparison? The NMSU study cites the number of visitors to the Cape Canaveral spaceport in Florida—2.8 million in 2000—as evidence of popular interest in space. Would those visitors keep coming if 140,000 failed to make it out alive?
A disaster wouldn't even have to be related to Virgin Galactic's New Mexico operations to have catastrophic consequences for the space-tourism business. Not all of the company's competitors, after all, are following its presumably safer design strategy: Bezos' Blue Origin will launch flights from Van Horn, Texas, about 100 miles south of El Paso, that will carry three passengers and take off vertically, blasting off with standard rocket fuel. If a Blue Origin rocket explodes on camera, it's unlikely potential space-tourism customers will make the fine distinction that New Mexico spaceport launches are probably safer.
That's exactly what worries Virgin Galactic president Whitehorn. He told Space.com, "One of the biggest risks we face is if someone in the next three years decides to put somebody into space using ground-based rocketry and they have an accident. Because the most likely thing that would result in is AST [the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation] being forced by Congress to shut down the whole program. If that happens, I think we have a real problem on our hands."
Lonnie Sumpter of New Mexico's space office doesn't think an accident would shut down space tourism, however. "No, I don't think that would be the end of the whole enterprise," he says. "The FAA is requiring space vehicles to go through a very stringent licensing procedure to make sure they're safe."
Oberg agrees. "Look at the fatality rate of things that people continue to do for fun, even after people get killed doing it," the NBC analyst says. "Think of skydiving, caving, deep-sea diving. There's a cultural acceptance of the deaths. For some people, it adds to the thrill; it's always the 'other guy' who gets it, anyway."
Individual accidents in remote locations, such
as luckless skydivers or doomed Mt. Everest climbers, however, may
not equal the headlines of seven space tourists and two crew perishing
at once in a highly publicized vehicle. How then might the public respond?
Oberg remains an optimist: "I
do worry about the reaction of the media and trial lawyers, but US astronauts
have been killed in two hideous shuttle catastrophes and the public response
has been very mature and level-headed—perhaps even too calm, because
both shuttle disasters were avoidable. Accidents are just something you
have to steel yourself to."
Whatever the possible risks, the spaceport's advocates believe the benefits to New Mexico are far greater. "Building this spaceport lays the foundation for a whole new industry," says Homans. "New Mexico will be the launch pad for America's second space age, centered on private-sector innovation and personal spaceflight, and that means new jobs and new opportunities for New Mexicans."
"New Mexico's vision for the Southwest Regional Spaceport is bold yet feasible," the Futron report concludes, "and has the potential to vault the state and the United States into the position of world leader in commercial space transportation and manufacturing."
Oberg, who admits he's "happy to wait here in Texas and watch for a couple of years" before buying a ticket himself, says, "People are put off by the idea that these are millionaires' playthings, yet people surround themselves in their homes with former millionaires' playthings, like VCRs, and they only got there because the millionaires went first. You guys in New Mexico have a front-row seat on a cultural push that's eventually going to head a lot higher than just up-and-down flights."
Still, others remain cautious. State Rep. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces told the Sun-News, "While it's easy to support the spaceport in principle, the devil is in the details. I'm sure the last thing anyone wants to do is create the 21st century version of the ghost town."
But surely history rewards the bold, the risk takers, doesn't it? Says the NMSU report, "Commercial space represents the latest stage in the millennia-old evolution of transportation systems. And, as in times past, governments will have to invest in the requisite infrastructure for the industry to thrive and economies to grow. History teaches us that those who judiciously invest are rewarded, while those that do not are typically left to languish."
History also reminds us, however, that when previous new frontiers have been conquered—when those intrepid settlers landed at Jamestown or the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock—there were no tourists merely along for the ride.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert