Data from public opinion polls indicate that nearly fifty million people would like to visit space. In fact as many as two million people each year would take the journey beyond the outer limits of Earth’s gravity. The public’s fascination with space travel means the potential development of a space travel tourism industry with revenues that could amount to $10 billion or more every year.
Therefore, it really is not hard to understand the interest in commercial space travel by private business. In fact, more than six companies are working to making commercial space travel a reality. However, the company that is closest to becoming the industry pioneer is Virgin Galactic. The company is a well funded joint venture of Richard Branson, Burt Rutan, and Paul Allen.
Eager future space travelers should consider that the development of Virgin Galactic’s Space Ship Two is nearly completed and could be performing test flights by the end of the year into space. The spacecrafts successful predecessor, Spaceship One, last reached space on October 4, 2004, winning the $10m Ansari X Prize. The larger and more powerful, Space Ship Two, is being built to accommodate two pilots and six passengers. Indeed, there will be enough room on board to experience the freedom of movement in the zero gravity of space. Initially, Virgin Galactic has ordered five spaceships to begin the business of commercial space travel and tourism.
The Spaceships will launch from the Virgin Galactic’s spaceport which is currently under construction in the state of New Mexico. The spaceport will be the first commercial space launch and control facility in the United States. The $200m spaceport project is designed to cover 27 square miles. It will feature a mission control station, runways, and the Virgin Galactic headquarters. Much of the facility will be built underground.
Customers that want to experience commercial space travel have been lining up for tickets. 75 people have already paid the entire $200,000 fee. William Shatner, Sigourney Weaver, and Paris Hilton are reported to be among the early space tourists while hundreds of others have put down more than thirty million dollars in deposits to reserve their seat for a flight on Virgin’s Spaceships. However, the initial experience of commercial space flight will be brief and it will not exactly represent a bargain ride. Passengers will spend just under 10 minutes in space at an altitude of only 65 miles, high enough to experience free fall and to see the curvature of the earth.
Of course, the creation of the new space travel tourism industry comes with government regulations. Already the United States Federal Aviation Administration has published its guidelines for commercial space travel, one hundred and twenty three pages of regulations that require disclosure and passenger training. Requirements include a disclosure on the number of trips the spacecraft has made into orbit and a history of its problems as well as a notice that the spacecraft has not been government certified. Also required is pre flight training for passengers in order to be properly prepared to handle emergencies such as a fire or loss of cabin pressure. Passengers will also be subject to the no-fly list currently operating in the US which is designed to stop terrorists boarding regular passenger flights.
It is expected that once people experience future commercial space travel, that they will want to make space their ultimate vacation destination. Therefore, the next innovative commercial space business venture may be the orbiting space hotel. Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune with hotel chain Budget Suites Of America, is already working on a prototype orbiting hotel. Bigelow has invested $75 million into the project, with a estimate of $425 million more a necessary commitment for the future.
His orbiting hotel venture is being developed under the corporate name of Bigelow Aerospace. The firm has successfully completed the first phase of the project by launching a small pod that inflates aloft called Genesis I. It is the first in a series of launches scheduled every six months for the next two and a half years. Genesis I has marked the beginning of what could be the first privately funded space station. The project is a prototype for cheap, livable, interconnecting rooms for commercial use in space similar in design to the International Space Station. In fact, Genesis I was an early concept for the ISS that was researched through funding by NASA. Robert Bigelow has since purchased the rights to the patent of the technology for his Genesis prototype.
Spaceports, flights to space, and orbiting hotels in space, indicate that a new era of commercial space travel and tourism is on the horizon. It will surely represent another small step for the creativity of man and a potentially giant leap to profitable opportunity for business and commercial enterprise of every kind.