Holidays in space are on the horizon

New Scientist, 4 September 2004

Technology Trends report from New Scientist Print Edition

By Michael Belfiore

When SpaceShipOne blazed a contrail into the clear blue sky above the Mojave desert on 21 June 2004, it became the first privately built crewed craft to reach space.

With that one flight, Burt Rutan’s budget rocket plane broke the government monopoly on spaceflight – leaving pundits excitedly predicting an era of private sub-orbital space travel, with orbital travel and space hotels beckoning. But is there enough consumer demand to support commercial space flight?

Maybe, according to a 2002 study by the management consultancy Futron, of Bethesda, Maryland, which boldly predicts that no less than 12,000 people a year will be taking sub-orbital tourist flights by 2020.

Although SpaceShipOne’s flight came well after the study was completed, it does not change any of its basic assumptions, Futron analyst Janice Starzyk says. “We made some pretty good assumptions, so we are sticking to these numbers.”

Wealthy and weightless

Futron polled only wealthy Americans who were itching to experience weightlessness and see the curvature of Earth from space. It assumed that competition would drive down ticket prices from an initial $100,000 to $50,000 by 2021.

Already, scores of would-be space tourists have put down substantial deposits on those first flights. The money is going to companies like Rutan’s Scaled Composites that are competing for the $10 million Ansari X prize, which will be awarded to the first viable, reusable sub-orbital spacecraft.

One of those hoping for a ride on an early commercial flight is the London-based Danish investment banker Per Wimmer, to whom space is a logical extension of his interest in adventure travel.

When one of his fellow adventurers told him he could make a reservation for a sub-orbital flight, he jumped at the chance, even though no commercial sub-orbital craft then existed.

“It was really exciting to know this might be possible,” Wimmer says. And when he has made his sub-orbital ride, he would like to take a holiday in orbit.

Some think he will not have to wait too long. Jim Benson, head of SpaceDev, which built Rutan’s rocket engine, says far more powerful orbital spacecraft will undoubtedly follow the sub-orbital vehicles, and orbit could be reached by 2008.

Mach 25 capability

Challenges abound: SpaceShipOne got to sub-orbit at a speed of Mach 3. Getting to orbit will require engines capable of Mach 25. But Benson sees no show-stoppers.

Of course, tourists need accommodation, and Las Vegas hotelier Robert Bigelow is aiming to supply it. Bigelow made his fortune as the owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, and he is now launching a $500 million effort to expand his business off-planet.

Adapted from TransHab, a never-used NASA design for an inflatable space station, Bigelow’s Nautilus space station module will provide 330 cubic metres of living space for space tourists or industrial researchers.

The inflatable multilayered polymer hull of the “hab” will be around 30 centimetres thick and will contain layers of Kevlar – as used in bullet-proof vests – to provide some protection against micrometeorites and space debris.

Bigelow’s engineers are testing the strength of the sandwich of high-tech fabrics and radiation shielding that will make up Nautilus’s hull by firing high-speed projectiles at it. They are also testing the hab to destruction by over-inflating the modules, with the resulting explosions contained in rigid test cages.

Economies of scale

Nautiluses could be flown as independent space stations or connected with a docking mechanism to make bigger hotels. Bigelow sees economies of scale as one of the keys to profitability, and plans to sell space hotels to rivals for $100 million each.

It all sounds far-fetched, but like Rutan, Bigelow is approaching his space ideas methodically, treating the space hotel like any other real-estate project. “We act as a general contractor,” he says.

He sources materials, tests them to ensure quality, and tries to match the best materials with the best prices, just as he would on a terrestrial construction project. “Good is good,” Bigelow says, whether it’s on Earth or in orbit.

If all goes well with orbital tests of one-third-scale test modules to be launched late next year, Bigelow plans to launch the first habitable Nautilus in 2008, around the time SpaceDev expects the first private orbital flights to be happening.

While Starzyk, for one, does not think commercial orbital vehicles will happen that soon, space flight has always been fuelled by dreamers daring to expect the impossible. Time will tell if they are right.