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starship-design: Barriers to Space Tourism
S P A C E V I E W S
1999 July 1
Barriers to Space Tourism
by Jeff Foust
The concept of space tourism has been a compelling vision for
many space activists. Opening space to more than just elite
government-funded explorers drives to heart of many people's interest
in space. Yet, nearly 40 years after the first human flew into space,
we are still several years away -- according to the most optimistic
estimates -- from flying passengers, rather than astronauts and
cosmonauts, into space. What's holding us back?
Over one hundred people gathered in Washington, DC June 23 and
24 to discuss the possibilities -- and problems -- of space tourism at
the first such conference in the United States, organized by the Space
Transportation Association (STA) and its Space Travel and Tourism
Division. The conference brought in a diverse group of people from
not just the aerospace industry, but tourism, finance, and government
officials as well, debating a wide spectrum of issues related to space
By the end of the conference, several key issues stood out as
the major hurdles on the path to developing a space tourism industry.
Some were obvious -- the lack of money to develop commercial vehicles
for use in tourism -- while others were less obvious and specific to
tourism alone. The conference provided no easy answers to these
issues, but raised questions that will have to be answered before
paying passengers can routinely fly into space.
Where are the Investors?
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for space tourism to overcome is
one that affects not only tourism but the whole launch vehicle
industry in general: a lack of money. Speaker after speaker noted the
lack of investors lining up to provide money to companies developing
reusable launch vehicles that could be used in space tourism pursuits.
Tom Rogers of the Space Transportation Association called the lack of
private-sector funding the "most important issue" to come out of the
While some have argued that the potentially huge demand for
space tourism could prove to investors that a large enough market
exists for reusable launch vehicles (RLVs), those people trying to
line up funding disagree. "I never mention space tourism on Wall
Street," said Rotary Rocket's Gary Hudson, noting investors'
skepticism with the concept of space tourism. "I have enough problems
as it is."
More than one speaker noted, perhaps with a twinge of
jealousy, the huge influx of venture capital going into Internet
startups. "It would be great if people would invest in rocket
companies like they do in Internet companies," noted Eric Anderson,
vice president of Space Adventures.
The chief challenge, noted LunaCorp president David Gump, is
that "space and expensive go hand-in-hand" in the eyes of investors.
In addition, people still closely link space with NASA, requiring some
kind of seal-of-approval from the space agency for private efforts.
Not everyone shared this pessimistic view of the investment
market. "People are screaming for investment opportunities," claimed
Wolfgang Demisch, managing director at Wasserstein, Pernella and Co.
He advised companies to "go gradually" and take advantage of existing
possibilities. He did note, though, that the easiest path to
developing a space tourism company might involve incorporating outside
the U.S, to avoid thorny regulatory issues.
Tom Watts, a vice president at Merrill Lynch, concurred,
saying that investors are willing to take known risks in a business
but are unwilling to take legislative or regulatory risks.
Perhaps the ideal position for a space tourism or launch
vehicle company to be in, Watts said, is to be not the first to
develop a RLV that can carry tourists, but the second. Once investors
see a plan work, he explained, they "rush like lemmings" to fund
A related issue to funding of RLVs is certification of these
vehicles. The X Prize's Peter Diamandis noted that in aviation today,
the cost of certifying a new aircraft can cost up to ten time as much
as it did to build it. This becomes a serious issue for RLV
developers, when costs to build the vehicles will go into the
hundreds of millions. A key question, then, he said, is what does the
certification of an RLV require, and how much will it cost?
One solution that Diamandis and Patrick Collins, a space
tourism researcher with the Japanese space agency NASDA, suggested is
the concept of the "accredited passenger". The proposal follows
existing Securities and Exchange Commission regulations, which allow
companies to raise money from "accredited investors" -- companies and
wealthy individuals who are aware of and willing to accept the risks
of investing in an unproven company. Similarly, an accredited
passenger would be a person knowledgeable about spaceflight who is
aware of and willing to accept the risks of flying in a new launch
vehicle that has not yet met FAA certification.
Building Awareness and Credibility
Dealing with the so-called "giggle factor" -- the
incredulousness people express when they hear abut the concept of
space tourism -- is also a hurdle for space tourism companies to
overcome. Or, as Space Adventure's Anderson put it, how do you "sell
space to people without sounding a little crazy?"
Space Adventures's plan has been its "Steps to Space" project,
where it markets a set of tours and programs that builds its way up to
eventual space tourism. Their programs start with low-key programs
like Space Camp and shuttle launch trips, and moves up to zero-g plane
rides in Russia and flights "to the edge of space" in a MiG-25.
Building up awareness and credibility is a "huge challenge",
agreed Scott Fitzsimmons, vice president of Zegrahm Space Voyages. To
maintain credibility, he said, space tourism companies will have to be
up front with its early customers. He drew parallels between space
tourism and deep-sea submersible tourism, another venture Zegrahm is
The Size of the Market
Another key issue brought up during the conference is the
uncertainty on the size of the overall space tourism market. The
number of people willing to pay tens or hundreds of thousands of
dollars, or even millions, to fly into space is filled with wild
guesses and backed by surprisingly little research.
Jerry Mallett, president of the Adventure Travel Society,
surprised many when he suggested that a half-million people per year
would be willing to spend $100,000 or more on a trip into space,
numbers much higher than had been suggested in the past. By
comparison, consultant Ivan Bekey believes that a market of 100,000
people a year could exist if prices were brought down to the
These wide variations in numbers led Rogers to call for better
and broader market surveys, to provide a better estimate on the number
of people willing to pay a certain amount to fly. Market estimates
that are within a factor of two to three are good enough, he said; the
problem arises when various estimates differ by a factor of ten or
To date, such extensive market research has not been
conducted. Patrick Collins noted that less than $100,000 has been
spent to date on all space tourism market surveys combined. Extensive
market research might seem too expensive, Mallett noted, but may not
necessarily be the case in the long run.
Who Can Go?
The estimates for the number of people willing to fly into
space do not take into account any medical restrictions that might
keep some willing passengers grounded. What restrictions that should
be placed on space tourists is an area just now being investigated.
The FAA's Dr. Melchor Antunano, manager of the agency's
aeromedical education branch, described the work he was undertaking
defining medical requirements for "aerospace pilots". While taking
into account the unique rigors of the space environment, these
requirements will have a "level of flexibility" in them similar to
that used in private pilot certification, but much unlike NASA's
strict astronaut requirements. "NASA could not use them", he said.
While not necessarily an immediate problem for short,
suborbital flights, the physiological and psychological effects of
extended space tourism flights will also need to be investigated,
according to Harvey Wickman, director of the Aerospace Psychological
Laboratory at Claremont McKenna College. Microgravity will have
repercussions not fully thought through now on everything from the
management of bodily fluids to how people meet and interact with one
While space tourists can't be expected to go through the
extended, thorough training of astronauts, Wickman said that training
will have to be longer than the preflight safety briefing on
commercial aircraft today.
Plans and Hope for the Future
Because of the wide variety of viewpoints expressed at the
conference, organizers decide to bypass plans on finding a consensus
on future work to be done to promote space tourism. Instead, the STA
plans to synthesize a paper based on the topics raised at the
conference, seek comment from attendees, and use that to set an agenda
for the next year. Progress made in the coming year will be used as
the starting point for the next space tourism conference the STA is
planning for next year.
"There are deep-rooted institutional problems to deal with
here," Tom Rogers of the STA said. "Something is different about the
space business because it's so public. That's something we need to
get on top of."
While the near future of space tourism remains uncertain, the
hope remains that one day ordinary people -- and even retired
astronauts -- might fly in space. Alan Ladwig, senior advisor to the
NASA administrator, tied in the upcoming 30th anniversary of the
Apollo 11 landing by noting that, while Buzz Aldrin has made his
interest in space tourism very clear, Neil Armstrong and Michael
Collins have been quiet on the issue.
Ladwig, however, unearthed a comment Armstrong made in 1970
when the astronaut was asked if he thought he would ever get a chance
to go into space again. "I'd be surprised if I didn't have a chance
to buy a ticket some day," he said.