Volume 24, Number 04, Summer, 2006


Space Tourists, or Where’s My Flight to the Moon?

By Ivar Arnesen

On June 21, 2004, 7,000 people watched raptly as the first private spacecraft to enter outer space (defined as an altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles)) took flight into history. SpaceShipOne, the rocket-powered vehicle, designed by Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites, fired its engines at roughly 14 kilometers after being lifted there by White Knight, which carried the smaller SpaceShipOne on its back for the first phase of the flight. When the new astronaut landed a few minutes later, an enterprising individual handed the crew a poster that read, “SpaceShipOne, Government Zero.”

Over two years later, while private enterprise languishes, the government tied the game. The shuttle program, grounded since the 2003 Columbia disaster, when that shuttle disintegrated over Texas upon re-entry, launched Discovery in July 2006 on a two-week mission, despite run-ins with vultures and foam slamming the ship during take-off. Whether the act of political expediency in sending Discovery into space despite such failures will prove costly upon re-entry, the fact remains that despite SpaceShipOne’s initial success, little or no concrete advances in private space-flight since have materialized.

Paul Allen, one of the co-founders of Microsoft and a long-time fan of science fiction, invested $20 million into Rutan’s project. Allen is just one of a handful of new-tech billionaires pumping massive amounts of money and energy into the private space effort. Aside from Allen, Jeff Bezos (Amazon.com), Elon Musk (Paypal) and John Carmack (Doom video games) are perhaps the most famous names involved. Bezos’s Blue Origin seeks to use reusable launch vehicles from a private spaceport in West Texas. Blue Origin remains in the theoretical stage at this point. Musk’s project, Space Exploration Technologies, finds itself still in the hiring stage, yet engineers who might usually head to NASA now find other options on the table. Musk’s focus is payload, not tourists. Carmack’s spaceports in Texas and Oklahoma (the South West is ideal for spaceports, with acreage far from major populations). While it's progressed to the stage of limited testing, Carmack remains far from launch stage, despite stating a few years ago the desire to compete for the X-Prize awarded to SpaceShipOne.

Shortly after the 2004 launch, the world was abuzz with news that Richard Branson, another billionaire, planned a fleet of tourist ships built by Rutan. Hundreds paid into a waiting list for the expensive trip, but nothing yet on the radar as to when flights begin. For the average human, space flight in the year 2006 looks almost as distant as it did in 1950. Unlike the low-budget adventurers in Victor Koman’s novel, Kings of the High Frontier, reality shows that while it takes a billionaire to compete with government in space, time continues to prove a major factor in getting off the ground.

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