Hitching a ride to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) soon will no longer be the domain of elite trained astronauts — it will be within reach of wealthy private citizens as early as this year, if NASA and a host of early space firms realize their ambitions.
With the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Sir Richard Branson leading the charge for privately funded space excursions, one fact is clear: space tourism is coming — buoyed by public support, government incentives, and private sector innovation.
In a press conference on June 7, NASA announced its strategy to open up the International Space Station (ISS) for commercial business as part of its drive to accelerate a thriving commercial economy in LEO.
Included in NASA’s sweeping announcement was welcoming the first non-astronauts onto the space station for week-long stays as early as next year — at a price tag of $50 million per rider to land on station, and $35,000 per night to stay there.
NASA isn’t alone. Virgin Galactic intends to offer its first tourist flights to space from the company's "Spaceport America" in New Mexico as early as next year. SpaceX announced last September its first private passenger to the moon: Japanese retail entrepreneur and art collector Yusaku Maezawa. The billionaire’s trip, slated for 2023, will include several invited artists and possibly SpaceX founder Elon Musk. Blue Origin “is targeting human flight this year, but it’s not a race – we’ll fly when we’re ready,” says Ariane Cornell, director of astronaut and orbital sales.
As part of its announcement on May 30, NASA released summaries of its LEO commercialization studies. A total of 12 companies examined the potential growth of a LEO economy, as part of an effort to transition LEO operations to a commercial model in which NASA would be one of many clients of commercial space facilities.
The plan calls for for-profit activities, including space tourism, in-space manufacturing, video products for entertainment, and in-space assembly and servicing, and transportation of people and cargo to and from LEO.
One study participant, Jeffrey Manber, CEO of NanoRacks, has long advocated for commercial space tourism from his days as head of Mir Corp., which leased the aging space station Mir for two years. He explains that while NanoRacks’ focus is more on supporting “professional astronauts,” or those hosted by companies and academic institutions, those individuals, too, will be space tourists when not working.
He envisions a future where “everyday people will be living, working and playing in space.”
“We will see space hotels, we will see outposts for professional astronauts, and we’ll see in the next decade about 10 private space stations — some automated, some for tourists, some for professional astronauts,” he predicts, though how quickly this occurs will depend on launch prices coming down.
While acknowledging the excitement for space tourism, Manber cautions that it shouldn’t overshadow the critical in-orbit work of scientists and commercial firms. “I don’t want our future as a space-faring nation to be dependent on tourism. We’re focused also on breakthroughs in research, new technology and in-space manufacturing.”
Clearly, NASA is looking to the “creative private sector” to drive a LEO economy. It hopes dollars from space tourism and professional astronaut missions will help fund its broader science and space exploration goals, including the push to the moon and Mars. And, not surprisingly, there’s no shortage of entrepreneurs looking to be first out of the gate to offer people with means a ride.
George Whitesides, CEO, Virgin Galactic and the Spaceship Company, reports “tremendous enthusiasm” among space enthusiasts interested in riding to LEO with Virgin Galactic.
“We already have over 600 customers, or future astronauts, who’ve put down deposits for a ride on SpaceShipTwo.”
Currently, 100 members of Virgin Galactic’s operations team is transitioning flight operations to Spaceport America in New Mexico from the company’s test facility in Majave, California. From there, the team will complete the final stages of its flight test program before transitioning to commercial operations.
Blue Origin, the spaceflight company founded by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, is focusing on operational reusability to bring access to space to a broader population. The company’s New Shepard spacecraft will leverage reusable vehicles and “airline-like operational tempos to drive down costs,” says Ariane Cornell, who oversees astronaut and orbital sales for Blue Origin.
“We believe the best way to lower the costs of access to space is by developing operationally reusable launch vehicles,” says Cornell.
Currently, Blue Origin is completing preliminary design review for its New Glenn spacecraft and is moving rapidly toward qualifying their BE-4 engine, which will power both New Glenn and ULA’s Vulcan. Blue Origin’s 180,000 m2 complex on Florida’s Space Coast will serve as the site for manufacturing, integration and operating New Glenn.
Describing the flight experience, Cornell says “it’s going to be incredible,” with astronauts having an 11-minute flight to space inside the New Shepard capsule. Near the top of its flight, the capsule will separate from the booster and continue above the Kármán line, the internationally recognized boundary of space. Once the astronauts release their harnesses, the passengers will float in weightlessness and look out at the Earth “through the largest windows in spaceflight history” before the spacecraft descends to Earth under parachutes.
While the bulk of space tourism industry activities is centered in the United States, several countries are looking to tap into the market. Virgin Galactic has forged agreements with international partners in Italy and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to explore opportunities to fly from their spaceports and provide local access to the microgravity environment for their science, education and technology sectors.
“The scientific community — both in the United States and abroad — is eager for routine and cost-effective access to space,” Whitesides says.
Innovate U.K.’s recent “Routes to Market Report” examined how seriously the United Kingdom (UK) is looking to capitalize on space tourism at a future spaceport. The report noted that the U.K. government has already offered up to $11.2 million (10 million euros) to incentivize the commercial spaceflight market but to date, only Virgin Galactic has emerged as the most likely contender to base part of its operation in Britain.
“There is no reason why a U.K. spaceport couldn’t become a high-profile tourist destination bolstered by its links to scientific research and engineering,” the report states.
In Spain, Zero 2 Infinity — founded in 2009 by aerospace engineer Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales — is looking at offering flights 36 kilometers up into the stratosphere using a balloon-borne pod and launcher.
“In my experience talking to people who have been to space, it’s the view that matters,” he says. “That view consists of blue Earth, curved horizon and a black sky during the day … and you get all of that on a high-altitude balloon at a fraction of the risk, cost, and complexity compared with other means.”
To date, Zero 2 Infinity has flown a half-scale vehicle successfully — when full size, it will accommodate two pilots and four passengers. For a cost of approximately $112,000 dollars (100,000 euros), passengers will take a two-hour flight to the stratosphere and remain above the atmosphere for two hours before returning to the ground. The company hopes to fly two pilots on a full-scale vehicle in the next year, pending successful funding.
For tourist rocket launches to be profitable, the price will have to drop and that will only occur if the number of flights rises dramatically — something Lopez-Urdiales contends isn’t likely anytime soon.
“The frequency of flight required to sustain a space tourism business plan at prices below $50 million is not yet compatible with the reliability of rockets,” he says, predicting that high-altitude ballooning space tourism outfitters will be established before rocket-based systems.
Another company set to tap into the space tourism boom, Orion Span, plans to host four tourists and two crew members in the comfort of Aurora Station, a space “hotel” habitat scheduled for deployment in late 2022 or early 2023, depending on the firm securing required funding this year.
David Jarvis, co-founder and CTO, says his company has embraced a modular architecture, which will allow Orion Span to “build space habitats of various sizes and purposes without having to start from scratch with each variant.” He continues, in saying that “we identified a manufacturing solution that will not only reduce fabrication costs by up to 90 percent but also will accelerate manufacturing speed from years to months.”
His firm’s space tourism strategy is based on the idea that the customer experience needs to be about much more than simply delivering them to a space station.
“There is the human factors element, the psychological element — the ability to work in a team environment,” Jarvis explains.
Taking its cue from NASA’s preparation of astronauts to work in teams before they fly, Orion Span has streamlined a 24-month training program to three months broken up into modules. Trainers will focus on building mutual trust and respect among each group.
“We need to understand how our guests will behave, how they interact with each other, and what their personal limits are. Once they arrive on orbit — that camaraderie and trust will be crucial because they will truly be in a remote location,” Jarvis says, adding that guests will travel with at least one professional flight crew, while a flight control team on the ground will help them “on every moment of their trip.”
As timing for the first Earth-bound launches of space tourists grows near, the public, governments and the innovation sector continue to hold their collective breath.
Many predict that once the first space tourism mission starts flying, it will spur a lot of activity.
To Lopez-Urdiales, the world is currently in the second of three phases of space activity — the first began with government-sponsored programs like the Apollo program and continued to the present day, with space projects backed by billionaires. It’s only in the third phase — when a broader base of entrepreneurs with cool ideas are funded and can compete for market share — will space tourism be sustainable, he says.
“When that happens and the financial sector invests in not only the Musks of the world but also in folks like us, space tourism will truly take off,” he concludes.
With the aging ISS nearing end of life in the next eight years, NASA is not wasting time challenging private sector innovators to get into low Earth orbit in a big way.
NASA announced the ability for private astronauts to visit the space station on U.S. commercial vehicles and for companies to engage in profit-making activities on the station.
“The commercialization of LEO will enable NASA to focus resources to land the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024 in the first phase in creating a sustainable lunar presence to prepare for future missions to Mars,” says NASA CFO Jeff DeWitt.
The agency also released a new ISS commercial use policy — where NASA has opened up 5 percent of its annual allocation of crew resources and cargo capability for commercial use, and can for the first time include for-profit manufacturing and marketing. The new commercial use policy covers costs using station resources, life support systems, crew supplies, storage, power, and data.
Robyn Gatens, deputy director of the ISS at the NASA headquarters, stated that NASA will support up to two short-duration private astronaut missions to the ISS each year starting as early as 2020. These missions will be privately funded, dedicated commercial space flights.
NASA leaders made it clear that they are looking for creative solutions from the entrepreneurial sector to drive the emerging space economy, including overcoming very real technical hurdles that could stall market growth.
“A successful market will require a reduction in cost of transportation into LEO,” Gatens says.
NASA also announced that it would accept proposals from the private sector to use a docking port on the ISS, in response to findings from LEO commercialization studies that opening up a port would allow companies to accelerate development of viable habitats. Gatens says the agency plans to award the port by the end of the fiscal year.
In the long-term, NASA’s goal is to become one of many customers purchasing services from independent, commercial and free-flying habitable destinations in LEO.
Currently, the agency pays between $3 to 4 billion a year to operate the ISS. Some 50 companies currently do business on the ISS, with most benefiting from NASA-subsidized rides to the station. VS