An uptick for space tourism

by Jeff Foust
Monday, June 8, 2009

A successful test of the rocket motor that will power SpaceShipTwo. Unpowered
flight tests of the suborbital spacecraft could begin late this year, according to
Virgin Galactic. (credit: Virgin Galactic)

A few months ago, the near-term prospects for space tourism were uncertain, at best. Charles Simonyi, preparing for a return trip to the International Space Station, was being touted as the “last” space tourist, at least for several years, because Russian officials said there would be no seats available on future Soyuz taxi flights because of the expansion of the station’s crew from three to six. In the suborbital realm, companies with funding appeared to be making only slow progress while other companies were struggling to raise money—no easy task even in the best of times, let alone during the middle of the worst economic crisis in decades.

“I have been described as many things throughout my 25 years with Cirque du Soleil. Fire-breather, entrepreneur, street smart, creative,” Laliberté said. “I am honored and humbled today with my new description: humanitarian space explorer.”

Today, those prospects appear at least a little better. The most prominent sign of changing fortunes came last week, when Space Adventures announced that Guy Laliberté, founder of the performance company Cirque du Soleil, would be flying to space this September on a Soyuz flight. That flight became possible a couple months earlier, when plans by the Russian government to fly a Kazakh cosmonaut fell through for unspecified reasons. At the time Space Adventures’ CEO Eric Anderson said it was possible to fly a commercial passenger in that seat and that several people were interested, although there had been no further news prior to last week’s announcement.

Laliberté, who will turn 50 a few weeks before his flight, said at a Moscow press conference he had been at the cosmonaut training facility in Star City, outside Moscow, since May 10, undergoing medical tests that he completed prior to the announcement. He added he’s been in contact with two previous ISS visitors, Simonyi and Richard Garriott, getting advice on the flight as well as living in Star City.

Laliberté described his flight as the “Poetic Social Mission”, an effort to raise awareness of water-related issues on behalf of the One Drop Foundation he established in 2007. “I have been described as many things throughout my 25 years with Cirque du Soleil. Fire-breather, entrepreneur, street smart, creative,” he said in a statement. “I am honored and humbled today with my new description: humanitarian space explorer.” He said that he would be working on a poem and other artistic activities during his time on the station.

“I have known Guy for several years. He has been a member of our Orbital Mission Explorers Circle,” Anderson said, referring to the group Space Adventures created last year to give customers first chance at flight opportunities such as this. “Since our very first discussions with him, he has wanted to travel in space for a purpose.”

While orbital space tourism gets new life, suborbital space tourism is showing new signs of progress. A week before the Laliberté announcement, Virgin Galactic announced a new milestone in the development of its system: the first tests of the rocket motor that will propel SpaceShipTwo (SS2) into space. The engine tests were carried out by contractor Sierra Nevada Corporation (which acquired SpaceDev last year) at an unspecified date. Virgin offered few technical details about the tests, other than the engine was the largest hybrid rocket motor of its type ever tested; Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn later said that the tests were on the oprder of 30 seconds long, with a series of longer engine tests planned for the near future.

Whitehorn, speaking at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Orlando the same day as the engine test announcement, added that testing of SpaceShipTwo’s carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), was going well. At that time WK2 had carried out five test flights (a sixth took place last week) with plans for additional test flights at higher altitudes. Current plans call for the first long-range test flight of WK2 on June 19, when the aircraft will take off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California and fly to southern New Mexico to overfly the groundbreaking ceremonies for Spaceport America, the commercial spaceport that will be the home for WK2 and SS2. WK2 will then return to Mojave to complete the non-stop flight. WK2 is also scheduled to fly to Oshkosh, Wisconsin in late July for the annual AirVenture show there.

Development of SS2—which has yet to be publicly unveiled—continues independent of those engine tests, Whitehorn said. The first flight tests of the vehicle are planned by the end of the year, in the form of glide tests (presumably preceded by “captive carry” flights where SS2 remains attached to WK2). That would appear to indicate that powered test flights would begin at some point next year, although Whitehorn and the company have been careful not to make specific schedule commitments, citing their desire to complete the test flight program rather than be driven by any specific schedule.

The good news is that risk appetite is coming back into the market,” said investment banker and prospective space tourist Wimmer.

XCOR Aerospace, meanwhile, is continuing engine tests and other work on its Lynx suborbital vehicle. Speaking just before Whitehorn at the ISDC, XCOR president Jeff Greason said the company completed the “first real piece of hardware” for the vehicle, a fiberglass version of the cockpit. This is designed as an engineering test article, not actual flight hardware, but is made from the same tooling that will be used for the flight hardware version, made of carbon composite. XCOR is using it to better understand how the various components of the cockpit come together at a much greater precision than a previous plywood mockup they had been using.

“This is a real thrill for me after so many years of working on the vehicle design on the computer, to see real pieces of it coming together in the shop,” Greason said.

And for those companies trying to raise money to fund vehicle development, at least one person thinks that the situation is not as bleak as it might have appeared just a half year ago. Speaking at the Space Investment Summit 6, held May 27 in Orlando, Danish investment banker and adventurer Per Wimmer said that the markets have just recently become more willing to take on risk, perceiving that the worst of the economic crisis is behind them.

“We’ve certainly pushed our brains to the limit these days because of the credit crunch,” said Wimmer. “The good news is that risk appetite is coming back into the market. We’re right now in the process of reaching an inflection point where we’re going back into an environment where risk appetite is coming back. In the past six weeks there’s been a massive turn in the marketplace.”

Wimmer, though, is hardly a dispassionate observer. He is XCOR’s first customer for Lynx suborbital flights and has also signed up with Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures for suborbital missions. Moreover, his ultimate goal extends far higher than 100 kilometers above the Earth. “My ultimate goal, in my lifetime, is to plant the Danish flag on the Moon,” he said. “It may take me a lifetime, but I’ll get there.”

Space tourism is a means to an end,” Whitehorn said.

Whitehorn, in his ISDC speech, drew parallels between the current economic environment and the aviation industry in the Great Depression. “One of the interesting parallels between our current credit crunch, this project, and the past in aviation, is the fact that the early plane manufacturers… were in credit crunches, and they were dealing with new technologies in aviation for the future, and in order to get them used, they had to start their own airlines,” he said, citing Howard Hughes. “So Virgin has had to be its own airline and its own manufacturer in this project, working with Scaled. And that has meant they’ve had to look very closely at how we look at the entire business that we’re developing.”

That means, he continued, that Virgin sees space tourism as just a first step towards a broader goal, likening it at one point to the barnstorming in aviation in the 1920s. “Space tourism is a means to an end,” he said. Virgin’s current customers realize that, “and they know that they’re actually making a down payment on the future of mankind in space with this project, and they’re very proud of that.”