The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Lifestyles

May 28, 2013

Space tourism industry seeks new heights

Are you looking for an experience that's fun, different and a little out of this world?

Do you have some extra cash to play with?

Maybe a suborbital flight to the edge of space is in the cards for you.

XCOR Aerospace is offering short jaunts about 200,000 feet up, well into micro-gravity territory, starting late next year.

The Mojave company is part of a budding space tourism industry drawing on new aerospace technologies to give thrill seekers experiences they can't find on terra firma.

"It's a pinnacle life event. Become an astronaut. Wooh!" said Andrew Nelson, XCOR's chief operating officer, in a recent interview at a space industry conference in Long Beach.

The 30-minute trip will put you back $95,000.

That is a relative bargain compared to the reported $20 million to $35 million that seven wealthy tourists have paid since 2001 for multiday trips to the International Space Station via Russia's space agency.

The company that arranged those trips, Virginia-based Space Adventures, plans to offer tourist trips around the moon for about $150 million a pop. The company says one passenger already has signed up. Another is needed to go ahead with the mission.

"Now we are at the place where it is all happening and it is a robust industry," said Eric Anderson, Space Adventures' chairman and CEO. "It is a very different time than just 15, 16 years ago. "

The idea behind all these ventures is to offer high-net-worth people a chance to experience something they will never forget.

"People pay a lot for goose bumps," Anderson said. "It's more than goose bumps. It's actually a memory. It's what some people see as their life's dream. "

Perhaps the most well-known space tourism ventures is Virgin Galactic, part of British mogul Richard Branson's Virgin Group. Virgin Galactic is testing a rocket plane to provide suborbital flights to tourists. The entire flight on the eight-seat spacecraft called SpaceShipTwo will last about 2 1/2 hours at a cost of $200,000 for each passenger.

"We hope to be in outer space by the end of this year and taking tourists into outer space hopefully not long after that," said Will Pomerantz, Virgin Galactic's vice president for special projects, during a panel discussion at the Long Beach event.

Pomerantz said his company already has 580 people from more than 50 countries signed up for a trip.

Unlike the traditional space industry, where a company can survive and even thrive with only a few clients that purchase satellites and rocket launches, space tourism will need to have many more customers.

"We are developing an understanding of how big the retail market is," said Jeffrey Manber, managing director of Nanoracks, a Houston company that provides rack-mounted laboratory facilities to commercial customers at the International Space Station.

One of the challenges of the space tourism industry is to find investors willing to spend millions of dollars to develop the technologies behind the extreme adventures. The companies burn through money quickly in the high-stakes design and testing process.

"We have a saying in this industry: Liquidity is more important than your mother," XCOR's Nelson said.

While an exciting gambit, space tourism has attracted much less investment than what was seen during the dot-com heyday in the late 1990s.

Yet, if the early space tourism experiences "do well ... I bet there will be a lot more capital," Anderson said.

Like any industry, to attract capital, companies must convince investors that they will be able to make a return on their money.

Hawthorne rocket developer SpaceX, one of the new generation of space companies, is already profitable, with many industry insiders expecting the business to go public in coming years.

Space Exploration Technologies, as SpaceX is officially known, sends satellites into orbit and supplies to the International Space Station.

SpaceX hopes to add to its repertoire by eventually taking NASA astronauts and others into space. Trips could be made to orbiting hotels and even a human colony on Mars.

XCOR hopes to follow SpaceX's lead to profitability.

Its orbital plane, the LYNX, is a two-seat craft about 30 feet long with a 24-foot wingspan. Each trip will be able to carry one space tourist, who sits in the cockpit next to the pilot. Both people would wear pressurized suits for safety, although the cockpit would also be pressured.

The LYNX will be able to fly 1,000 missions a year, with the ability to also carry science experiments.

Over the past two years, the private company has sold about 275 flights. Consumer goods maker Unilever purchased 22 tickets, which the company plans to give away as part of a global competition linked to its Axe brand of male grooming products.

For each passenger, the experience includes three to four days of training at a luxury resort, then another day of final training before the flight.

LYNX takes off like a plane and reaches a top speed of more than 1,000 yards a second, faster than the muzzle velocity of a deer rifle. The current version of LYNX, dubbed Mark I, would reach suborbital space about three minutes after takeoff, and soar in micro-gravity for about 65 seconds, although the passenger will experience the sensation of near-weightlessness for several minutes. The entire trip will last half an hour.

XCOR expects to introduce the next version of LYNX, called Mark II, about a year to 18 months later. That version will be able to fly to more than 300,000 feet high and dwell in micro-gravity for about three minutes before returning.

The company envisions operating LYNX flights from different sites around the globe.

One scenario that worries space tourism entrepreneurs is potential fatalities from adventures that go wrong.

While the industry is still young and small, a disaster would not derail it, Nelson said.

"The first time a plane crashed it didn't kill the industry. The first time a train crashed it didn't kill the industry," Nelson said. "So when there is a bad day - it's not if, it's when - we have to recognize it. ... We have to fix it and move forward. "

 

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