They came together for the 27th-annual International Space Development Conference (ISDC), sponsored by the National Space Society (NSS). The vision of the NSS is "people working and living in thriving communities beyond the Earth, and the use of the vast resources of space for the dramatic betterment of humanity."
Founded in 1987, the NSS is one of the United States' premier space-advocacy organizations. Unlike the Planetary Society, which concentrates on space science, or the Space Foundation, which is focused on industry, the NSS is centered around the ambition to create a "space-faring civilization."
The organization sees science and exploration not as ends in themselves but as enablers of the expansion of the human race elsewhere into our solar system, and beyond. As the Russian space pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky wrote, “Earth is the cradle of mankind, but one does not stay in the cradle forever.”
Traveling to other worlds, however, will require that the cost of access to orbit be radically reduced. Today, its costs about $15,000 to lift 1 kilogram of payload into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), often defined as between 150 to 800 kilometers above the Earth's surface. LEOs are used by the International Space Station and by most environmental and intelligence-gathering satellites.
The launch vehicles in this price range include the European Ariane, the Russian Proton, and the U.S. Atlas and Delta rockets. The costs for NASA’s fleet of space shuttles are much higher.
Five Space 'Tourists'
So far, only five individuals have paid their own way into space. All have traveled via Russia’s reliable, but aging, Soyuz rocket and capsule combination.
The first to do so was American Dennis Tito, who flew in 2001. He was followed by South African Mark Shuttleworth in 2002. Two of the others spoke at the ISDC -- Greg Olsen, a scientist and entrepreneur who went up in October 2005, and software executive Anousheh Ansari, the first private female space traveler, who flew in September 2007.
They described to conference participants their experiences and explained what they have been doing since they returned to Earth. Both said it was the experience of a lifetime. Their ride on the Soyuz was, in both cases, smooth and without problems. On the way down, Olsen experienced a minor problem in cabin pressure, but on the whole the Russian hardware performed as expected.
They may have paid $20 million each for the trip, but there is no doubt they felt it was worth it. Olsen has been visiting schools across the United States, recounting his adventure and trying to inspire kids to study science.
Ansari said she dislikes the term "space tourist." “Do we call someone who has climbed Mount Everest an 'Everest tourist?" she asked.
Olsen said he prefers the Russian term, “visiting crew."
No one at the conference had any doubts that the private space-exploration industry has an interesting and exciting future ahead of it.
Preparing For Launch
Within a few years, a very different kind of "space tourism" experience will be available to the public, for far less money. British entrepreneur Richard Branson’s new venture, Virgin Galactic, hopes to begin flying passengers from a custom-built spaceport in New Mexico starting in 2009 or 2010. They have already signed up more than 200 customers -- called "founders" -- who will be making the initial suborbital flights at a cost of $200,000 each.
They plan to use the "SpaceShipTwo" rocket-plane design built by Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites of Mojave, California. It is based on "SpaceShipOne," the craft that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 for being the first privately funded human spaceflight.
Launched from beneath the "White Knight Two" carrier aircraft at about 15,000 meters, the six "astronaut passengers" and two pilots will accelerate to Mach 3 and within less than two minutes will reach 110,000 meters -- well above the 100-kilometer altitude that marks the official boundary of space. After a few minutes of weightlessness, the passengers will return to their seats and strap in for the descent and landing.
Virgin Galactic is not the only company building passenger rockets for the suborbital space tourism market. XCOR, which like Scaled Composites is based in California, recently announced it is building a two-seat rocket plane it calls Lynx that will, when ready, take one passenger and one pilot on a flight similar to that offered by Virgin Galactic, but at a lower cost. The experience they plan to offer will be more of a "seat-of-the-pants" flight -- more exciting, perhaps, than the better organized and more professional trip that will be available on "SpaceShipTwo."
There are other U.S. firms working to build these types of rocket-powered machines, notably the Blue Origins project financed by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, the online shopping network. The idea is spreading. The European aerospace giant EADS recently announced it is working on a design of its own.
The importance of this technology is not that it will produce immediate profits for the builders and operators, though of course that would be nice. It's that the designs will eventually lead to vehicles that can reach orbit. And as the performance of these craft improves, they will be able go faster and higher and to withstand more heat on reentry. To reach orbit, speeds of about Mach 25 are needed, and that means powerful engines and a lot of fuel. Even reaching Mach 3 is quite an accomplishment for a vehicle like "SpaceShipTwo," which is being built for between $20 million and $25 million.
Compared with the billions of dollars that governments invest in the design and development of major space-launch vehicles, they are working on a shoestring budget. The efficiencies they achieve by not having to deal with bureaucracy are without a doubt considerable, but the question is, are they enough to overcome the lack of resources?
What is so promising about these rocket planes is that, if successful, they will generate income that can be used to build the next generation, and the one after that. It may take more than a decade to develop a craft that can take off, go into orbit, and return without throwing anything away. The ultimate goal is to build something that will operate more like an airliner and less like today's launchers, which some critics have referred to as a form of glorified artillery.
A true Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) would be able to dramatically cut the cost of putting a kilogram of payload into space from the thousands of dollars it costs today to just hundreds of dollars. After all, it would not be throwing away any expensive rocket engines, fuel tanks, and the rest of the structures that are jettisoned by modern rockets as they roar into orbit. In terms of energy, it has been said that, “Once you get to LEO, you’re halfway to anywhere in the solar system."
These are the rockets that will truly open up space for human development.
The first human outposts off the planet are already being designed and built. NASA and its international partners are building the International Space Station. Bob Bigelow, a hotel tycoon from Las Vegas, is building a private space facility that some are calling a “space hotel.” He already has a subscale prototype in orbit that was launched last year on a Russian rocket. The United States hopes to begin building the first lunar outpost sometime around 2022 or 2023.
Inspiring Young People
At the ISDC, awards were presented to two teams of young people for their space-settlement designs. First prize went to a team from India, while second prize was awarded to a team from Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian entry was a comprehensive design that paid attention to the social and political aspects of living away from Earth, as well as to the needs for oxygen, power, food, water, and all the other things needed to support life in a closed environment. It is interesting to note that the students recognized that one important source of income for their space colony would be from tourism.
Their trip to the United States was paid for by the Bulgarian government’s Economy Ministry, which shows the importance Bulgaria places on space as a way to inspire young people to study science and engineering.
According to a recent report published by the Space Foundation, the global space industry has a gross annual budget of about $250 billion. NASA’s budget is about $17 billion, and the U.S. government as a whole spends about $64 billion per year. Most of the rest is from commercial satellite services, including communications and navigation. Growth in the sector has been steady but not spectacular.
When the day comes that the cost of getting into space is dramatically lower, either thanks to RLVs or perhaps a different, more exotic, technology, then the solar system will become, as U.S. President George W. Bush’s science adviser, John Marburger, once said, "part of humanity’s economic sphere.”
And the great energy and mineral resources that exist out there will be available to everyone on this planet, Earth.