The Future of Space Tourism


iet_logoThis evening I went to the IET‘s main headquarters in London, Savoy Place, to listen to a presentation by Robert Lainé, Chieft Technical Officer for EADS Space (part of Astrium), as part of the IET’s Kevlin lecture series. The presentation was on EADS Space’s new launch vehicle designed for sub-orbital flights to 100km, designed specifically for the space tourism market that will be kicked off soon by Virgin Galactic.

Whereas Richard Branson is building his own custom plane for his own space tourism company, EADS Space is creating a re-usable launch vehical that will be produced for other space tourism companies to buy. They are looking to become the “Airbus” of the space industry, whereas Virgin is looking to become the Thomas Cook of the space industry. Virgin will get there first as they are well along in their plans, planning to launch the first commercial flight in 2009, but EADS Space believes there is room for a second entrant in this market. Here are a few of the figures from the presentation:
  • The average price people are prepared to pay for a sub-orbital flight is around US$200,000
  • Because most tourists will be high net-worth individuals initially (at least until the price comes down!), they prefer to travel in small groups of 4 per plane, as opposed to larger groups, for a more personal experience
  • They predict that the market could cater for around 15,000 trips a year at these prices (meaning they will need to sell at least 72 plans to cater for this demand as each plane can only take off once a week)
The project itself is receiving around €1.3billion funding and they expect the first commercial flight to be launched in 2012. So what would a flight look like?

Well here’s a quick overview of your journey:
  • Arrive in “space port” (they recommend the mediterranean for best views, in the north there is too much cloud cover and the Sahara has no decent features to look down at) for initial training and preparation. Unlike training for astronauts, as this is a suborbital flight lasting only minutes, this will be just basic health checks to ensure you can withstand the 3G acceleration and safety instruction.
  • Take off on a normal runway, using jet engines to an altitude of 12km.
  • Fire up methane rocket engines (methane is the most environmentally friendly fuel they could realistically use for the rocket engine as hydrogen would have made the plane 4 times larger!) to accelerate over 80 seconds at 3G to 100km, the official line where “space” begins and you can see the curvature of Earth.
  • The plane goes into a parabolic drop, initially rising then falling back to Earth again. During this 3 minute period, the passengers will experience weightlessness and be able to leave their seats to float around and look out of the window. There were questions asking if it could be longer than 3 minutes, but apparently any longer than 3 minutes would drive up the ticket price and also start to cause discomfort for some passengers not used to weightlessness.
  • The plane re-enters the atmosphere flat so that the largest surface area is exposed. By doing this, the body never reaches more than 100°C reducing the need for heavy heat shielding.
  • The plane then dives head first for most of the journey back down (exciting!) so that the wings can pick up enough airspeed to return to horizontal flight.
  • Once horizontal flight is achieved, the plane returns to jet engine thrust and lands again at the airport.
Sound exciting? I think anyone like me who has always wanted to go into space, and the thrill seekers, would all buy a ticket if we had the money! The only thing to remember though is this is a sub-orbital flight, you won’t be in orbit like an astronaut, and the weightless experience only lasts 3 minutes. To be honest, I went more to see about the development in the context of the space industry as a whole. I do believe that space tourism will be a big lucrative market, however its not where the big money will be. I’ve studied space technology from the age of 14 and I have always believed whoever gets into space to mine the extensive mineral and energy resources there will be the real big players in the space industry! Without the mineral resources in space, we face a lifetime of launching resources from earth, making large space stations and colonies prohibitive! And Space may very well play a large part in Earth’s energy production, by mining Helium-3 for a more sustainable fusion reaction that does not throw off huge amounts of radioactive isotopes that destroy the reaction.
As an IT person, I compare the space industry to the IT Industry. The big mining companies who make available the necessary resources and huge launch vehicles to get into space will be the “operating system” that everything else is built on, and the first major company to win that will be the Microsoft of the space industry. Space tourism is more like the PC game market, a huge industry by itself, but built on top of the operating system and dwarfed in size by it. I am encouraged to see EADS also seeing the development of a space plane for space tourism as a stepping stone in the development of future, cheaper re-usable launch vehicles that will allow us the initial access we need into space to then conquer the huge resources up there! Space tourism is a stepping stone to encourage the funds and innovation needed for the next big step, a sustainable presence in space.
While we’re on the subject, I would also like to criticise mankind’s rush to Mars. It seems the next big step for mankind is going to Mars, and NASA is drawing up a road-map of how we will get there. While I am all for the human exploration of the solar system, I think the money would be better spent developing the infrastructure for a permanent colony on the moon, instead of another political space race like the Apollo moon landings. I’ve been to the Smithsonian space museum in Washington DC 3 times the last couple of months, taking friends there to show them how the space race encouraged technology and innovation across several industries and potentially kept the cold war from becoming nuclear as both countries competed in space, not on the ground with missiles. Mars could do the same, but we have more immediate needs, such as clean energy to combat Global Warming. The moon is the closest large resource we have with Helium-3 absorbed into the soil. We should concentrate on a mission to put a permanent colony on the moon to mine this resource, and also Oxygen and newly discovered water to make a sustainable living environment in space.