[FPSPACE] Fw: Jim quoted in Wall Street Journal on 'space tourism'

Jim Oberg joberg at houston.rr.com
Fri Oct 1 12:53:21 EDT 2004


OpinionJournal
got it!

REVIEW & OUTLOOK

On the Up and Up

All of a sudden civilian astronauts seem like a real possibility.

What kinds of people will be the first paying passengers in space? The era
of five-minute suborbital thrill rides came closer this week with
Wednesday's test flight of the privately built SpaceShipOne and the
announcement by airline adventurer Richard Branson that his new Virgin
Galactic enterprise expects to sell rocket-plane tickets for about $200,000
by 2007. All of a sudden, it's beginning to look like nothing will hold
civilian astronauts down.

Probably not the price. For the cost of a luxury car or putting one more kid
through college, certainly there are folks who can and will pay for the
ultimate kick of space travel--whether the turn-on comes from risking their
hide, being the first on the block, showing off for a first date or just
slipping those earthly bonds. As for the indulgence of a space splurge, it's
worth noting that many pursuits that began in the province of the
wealthy--say, scuba and sky diving, and even airplane travel--later became
affordable to the rest of us. The SpaceFuture Web site tells the cash-poor
not to despair; someday even they may be able to get into space by taking a
job busing tables in an orbiting hotel.

But if you find the idea of mass vacationing in zero-gravity hard to
swallow, you're not alone. Most space experts believe that recreational
space travel will always be expensive. And that's sort of good. For all the
buzz that space tourism generates, entrepreneurs see it chiefly as a way to
raise cash to finance the development of an industry that will make money in
the future in more mundane ways (and in exciting ways not yet imagined).

Right now, for instance, medical research in space and satellite launches
cost millions and can take years to arrange. However, today's small, private
companies are working on reusable launch vehicles that will bring costs way,
way down. Instead of throwing your car away when a tire blows, which in
effect is the NASA problem with its expendable approach to launchers, the
new vehicles will carry payloads over and over again. So a company like XCOR
Aerospace can project that its craft will put microsatellites into low earth
orbit for about $500,000, affordable for companies that couldn't dream of
paying today's $12 million price tag for a conventional launch.

When there are cheaper ways to get your satellite or your experiment up,
there will be more customers for such services, meaning more business for
the people who make the rockets and more incentive for rocket makers to
think of new services to offer. That's how real markets grow, and in this
case tourism is expected to fund research with new applications--including
things like FedEx deliveries anywhere in the world the same day. Or just
very rapid passenger flights between New York and Los Angeles.

There are lofty ways to look at all this. To retired rocket scientist James
Oberg, human space flight is a "constant reminder of possibilities, that the
way things are now are not the way they need to be" in any aspect of your
life, that tomorrow can be better. Certainly, however, the latest flight of
SpaceShipOne has revived some baser instincts as well. To protect the
nascent private industry from such instincts--from strangling regulators and
other potential predators--the House this year passed the Commercial Space
Launch Amendments Act. Yet as this Congress winds down, the bill is stuck in
the Senate, at least partly because some there don't like the idea of
passengers, fully informed of the risks, signing liability waivers.

That's so dreary; let's focus instead on next week, when SpaceShipOne could
make its clinching bid to claim the $10 million "X-Prize" for a reusable
vehicle able to get passengers into suborbital space. What's next, a $50
million prize for taking people orbital? For sure, some space cadet has
already thought of that.



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