Space Tourism Gets Ready to Take Off

Entrepreneurs on the Final Frontier
by Jennifer Wang

When I spoke to John Gedmark, the executive director at the Personal Spaceflight Federation, he noted that the technology required for space flight (a term preferable to space tourism) already exists, but the challenge is building spacecraft that can provide a service for repeated use, and the most obvious barrier for would-be space entrepreneurs is capital. Building rockets–and hiring rocket scientists, so to speak–is an expensive endeavor, so the roster is limited to players like Richard Branson of Virgin and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

Given the history of success for these ultimate entrepreneurs, it should come as no surprise that they’re getting close to a breakthrough. “Something big is on the horizon,” Gedmark says, asserting that private space exploration is more alive today than it ever was before, including when Burt Rutan won the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE in 2004 by building the first privately funded craft to enter space twice in two weeks. “You have about a half-dozen companies that have the technical know-how and financial backing to credibly pursue space flight as a private enterprise, and they are going ahead with their vehicles as quickly as hardware development and tests allow for. We should see the first commercial activities in 2010,” he explains.

Most intriguing to me are the parallels to the commercial aviation industry, which really started to take off (ha ha) during the Great Depression, a time of unrivaled economic strife. Similar, too, are the passion and pioneering spirits of the first aviators, who, as Gedmark points out, were seen as “barnstormers” because they were doing something incredibly risky. The description certainly applies to those leading the charge in the commercial spaceflight industry. “You put the question of ‘How would you spend your time and money if you could do whatever you wanted?’ to some of the most brilliant and successful people in the entire world … and over and over and over again, the answer is that they want to go to space.”

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My View: The comparisons with commercial aviation are interesting, but they only go so far. The maturity of air travel was greatly spurred on by World War I (when planes were first used in combat), subsequent military spending after the war, and the economic boom of the 1920’s. Commercial aviation thus came into its own as the Great Depression hit.

The military buildup during the late 1930’s (as Germany rearmed and its enemies countered) and the Second World War did much to spur on aviation advances. Then there were the Cold War and hot wars that dominated the rest of the 20th century.

This military component of this growth is not much mentioned by space tourism’s many supporters, who understandably prefer the romantic images of barnstormers and Charles Lindbergh heroics to images of dog fights, firebombed cities and mushroom clouds.

The military is putting money into hypersonic research and suborbital troop carriers. However, it’s not clear whether military spending will give the same boost to space tourism as it gave to aviation. There were more than 26,000 DC-3 produced, including more than 10,000 of the C-47 military variant. Space vehicles will not be manufactured on such a scale, at leas for a foreseeable future.

A key reason is the lack of existing markets in space. By the time aviation matured, there were already huge markets for the transportation of people and goods. Aircraft could supplement and eventually supplant other forms of transportation while making profits for their owners. But all the other forms of transportation (auto, rail and ship) still thrive today.

The space station aside, there’s not really anywhere for people to go in space – at least not yet. It will take some time to build up an infrastructure there that would support the large-scale transportation of people and goods. Until then, space travel may remain quite expensive.