April 21st, 2007 02:08 EST
How Safe Is the Race to Send Tourists into Space?
The race to send tourists into space is heating up with billionaires from Richard Branson to Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos funding their own companies to build and launch spaceships for nonastronauts.
Earlier this month, a Russian rocket carried another billionaire, former Microsoft Corp. programmer Charles Simonyi, to the International Space Station -- the fifth civilian to make the trip. The ride was brokered by Space Adventures Ltd., a company that has announced plans to build spaceports in Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.
Mr. Branson's Virgin Galactic has begun accepting advance reservations ($200,000 a seat) for suborbital trips from spaceports in California and New Mexico. Mr. Bezos's secretive company, Blue Origin LLC, has tested its low-cost suborbital rocket in Texas. Meanwhile, hotel mogul Robert Bigelow recently unveiled the plans for his company, Bigelow Aerospace. He intends to launch a cluster of low-Earth orbit accommodations that scientists and others can visit.
But how safe is the space tourism business? The Wall Street Journal Online invited Patricia Smith, who heads the Federal Aviation Administration office responsible for overseeing the nascent industry, to discuss the topic with space entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, a co-founder of Space Adventures and chairman of the X Prize Foundation, which awarded a $10 million prize to Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne in 2004. Their conversation, carried out via email, is below.
Ms. Smith begins: What a great question and one that is probably on a lot of people's minds as we have expanded our role to include private human spaceflight. I believe that to work with industry to ensure safety is an appropriate governmental role. We are happy to play it given the fact that our industry is clearly on the same page. In giving us responsibility for regulating and promoting private human spaceflight, Congress directed us to protect the uninvolved public. The spaceflight participants, or passengers, travel at their own risk, once they have been provided the safety record and data related to the vehicle they are flying on. The spaceflight companies that we are working with are clearly focused on safety… and believe strongly that safety leads to reliability leads to more business and sustainability. So do we.
Dr. Diamandis responds: Patti Smith and her team play the unique role of both regulating and promoting this new industry... and have been doing both extremely well. Interestingly, the industry feels that they have a complementary role to regulate and promote. In fact early on, the industry created something called the Personal Spaceflight Federation, a sort of industry working group, to coordinate closely with the FAA.
The personal spaceflight industry is "being born" in a very different regulatory environment than aviation did 100 years ago. During the period of 1903 - 1912 when aviation started there was no regulatory body (and few lawyers!) so entrepreneurs and inventors experimented widely. Today the challenge that the FAA has is "how do we allow for growth and experimentation, without having over regulation hamper growth and breakthroughs."
I do believe that the entrepreneurs know, without any doubt, that they can't afford to have a significant and visible failure. That early loss of life would be devastating for their company and perhaps the industry.
Ms. Smith: Safety guides everything that the industry does. Guides everything the FAA does. Congress said in the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, our authorizing legislation, that "the future of the commercial human spaceflight industry will depend on its ability to continually improve its safety performance." There is no one that I know that has to be convinced of this….
The fact that we and the industry are all focused on safety, that we are talking about the ramifications of an accident, should say that "we" and "they" both believe that safety is the key! At our recent conference in February, on a panel entitled, "When is a launch vehicle ready to carry passengers?" industry leaders Alex Tai (Virgin Galactic), Jeff Greason (XCOR), George Whiteside (National Space Society) and John Herrington (Rocketplane Kistler) resoundingly stated that the "vehicle will fly when its safe to fly."
What an exciting time we live in when it comes to space. We have a real opportunity to create benefits for our country, the world, and to free space dreamers and businesspersons to realize their dreams by making a business out of this. At the national level, we have a National Space Transportation Policy that supports the development of commercial space transportation, to include private human spaceflight, a vision from our president that supports, and legislation from Congress that gives us the authority to issue licenses and issue experimental permits for testing and development. We have an FAA administrator, my boss, Marion Blakey, who really believes in this stuff and has said repeatedly to go forth and enable.
With the Ansari X Prize in 2004, which Peter Diamandis and the X Prize Foundation sponsored, that Burt Rutan and his team won, the country was ignited about space in the way it was in the 1960s. It is the genius of American private entrepreneurs that is making this happen. They are the real drivers that are changing commercial space transportation into an industry that the public is fast beginning to recognize as commercial enterprise. People all around the world are talking about space transportation, private human spaceflight, with real examples of things happening that make for them what were concepts, ideas, drawings on paper, REAL. WE, the collective we, have got the job of keeping this momentum going. As we lead the rest of the world in private human spaceflight, we've really got something going on that we can be very proud of as a nation. And we are!
Dr. Diamandis: I once gave congressional testimony about the Ansari X Prize and was asked the question, "aren't people going to die?" I answered by saying that as Americans we should remember that America was opened up 500 years ago because thousands of people gave their lives to pursue their dreams, dare to cross the oceans and explore. Then 200 years ago, thousands of explorers gave their lives again as they opened the American West! We are on the brink of the greatest exploration humanity has ever undertaken and we need to be sure not to prevent this from happening through fear of what might happen.
I think one of the key points that Patti Smith brings up is that the FAA must keep the "uninvolved public" safe. We must remember that the first people flying on these suborbital spaceships are really explorers in their own right. They will (must) understand the risk. They will be taking these flights because of their own passion. These early flights are not joy rides.
I would actually love to see some of these companies strive for larger breakthroughs, but they will probably not do this in the early days because they need to strive for safety and a reliable revenue stream. The more they fly, the more they will learn. Today when we ONLY have four to six human spaceflights per year (shuttle & Soyuz), and 10 to 15 commercial satellite launches per year, we can't really hope to innovate. The cost of spaceflight today is arguably HIGHER than it was 30 years ago. We need a vibrant marketplace that will allow for hundreds or thousands of flights per year. This will only come as we develop and promote the personal spaceflight market.
Ms. Smith: I would say that we have an opportunity to draw from and benefit from the tremendous legacy of aviation, where appropriate. And we are, and will. However, it is equally important to recognize that space is unique and that one-to-one comparisons are not appropriate.
Congress determined that the FAA would be the place in the government where people can go who are seeking information, licenses, permits for activities in the area of commercial space transportation. We like to say that if the request has "rocket" in the name, it comes to us first, and then we engage the rest of our "corporate" partners in developing the most complete, responsive, and timely response to the request.
For example, we backed a project some 10 years ago, in anticipation of what is happening today, working with our air traffic partners, that included the development of a concept of operations for space- and air-traffic management. This partnership continues today and includes looking out some 25 years to what approaches will be needed to separate aircraft from spacecraft when our launch manifests become more robust.
With SpaceShipOne, we worked with our aviation safety partners, to evolve the right approach to its hybrid vehicle (air and spacecraft), and blended the approaches into a launch system license that met the needs of SpaceShipOne and our safety regulations. We will continue to work to enable this industry and to be responsive to our safety mandate.
I foresee that the time will come when we have many more vehicles flying in the national airspace system with far greater regularity, launching from various launch sites, with passengers going point to point, that a regulatory approach that is a variant to the aviation certification process may be called for. Today we license the operations of the launch vehicle; we do not certify the vehicle's design. We are preparing for the day when commercial space is as common as air travel.
Dr. Diamandis: Spaceflight over the next five to 10 years will resemble the early aviation days of "barnstorming" where people used to pay a weeks' salary to get up into the air to experience the view.
I don't expect we will really end up with airplane-like "care-free" transport in space for another 20 years. We really need some fundamental technology breakthroughs. These breakthroughs could come from artificial intelligent systems that increase safety and system reliability. They might also come from nanotechnology materials (e.g. carbon nanotube impregnated composites) that increase the strength to weight ratio of the rocket structures by 100-fold.
Regarding the economics: Today the cost of operating a mature transportation system (car, train, plane) is typically three times the cost of the fuel. So an airplane that burns about $5,000 of fuel per hour will cost an airline about $15,000/hour of all-in cost (leases, personnel, insurance, etc.). These economics hold true for systems that are reusable and operate at high flight frequencies (spend more time flying than in the hanger).
The cost of suborbital flight seats today are projected to be $100,000 - $200,000 per person. If you assume that the average craft will carry about six passengers then the revenue per vehicle will be about $1 million.
The cost of the fuel on a suborbital system is probably on the order of $50,000 (max). Meaning the cost of operating the system can eventually get down to $150,000 per flight.
For these reasons I expect that over the next decade we'll see the price of seats drop from $200K to $100K to $50K, and perhaps as low as $25K per person. However, this all presumes we get up to a significant flight rate on the order of 5,000 - 10,000 suborbital passengers per year.
Ms. Smith: A few final things... This office opened its doors in 1984. It licensed its first launch in 1989. Since 1989, we have licensed 181 launches with zero accidents. Most of these licenses carried communications services. We have not had one casualty or significant property damage as a result of a licensed commercial launch. We are very proud of this record and work every day to maintain it.
Our authority also extends to licensing the operations of launch sites. Currently, we have licensed six commercial launch site, with several other states expressing interest. States see launch sites as an opportunity to build business and create jobs. Our work began in 1989 with the expendable launch business and has evolved to include suborbital, reusable, launch vehicles as well as launch sites.
For the first twenty years of the office's existence, we were building the regulatory and policy underpinnings for an industry that we all believed would at some point evolve to full-fledged transportation. I believe that we are on that road now. In 2004, we transitioned from great skepticism to believability on the part of many, many, more people. For lots of people, seeing still is believing. People are now seeing and believing and more people are getting involved…
We have a real opportunity to carry our message into many more places with people who believe that the only business that is going on spacewise is at NASA. We are having success in interesting young people, some of the brightest out there, to bring their genius to our office and add to the choir who could not be more tenacious, more committed, more capable, when it comes to space. Just as several "dot-coms" have grown excited enough about space to put their money where their mouths are, I believe that there are other non-space industries that are soon to engage.
One of the great things about working in this field is the realization that the future -- the future that imagination has taken us to so often before -- is closer now in a real way than it has ever been. Private citizens will fly in space on private vehicles. Maybe someone reading The Wall Street Journal will be one of them.
Dr. Diamandis concludes: Some time during the next three to five years there will be what I call a "Netscape Event" where one of the first personal spaceflight companies does an IPO (Initial Public Offering) and makes its investors a lot of money. Once that occurs private capital (from individual small investors to large hedge funds) will begin to chase this market and the risk capital will flow.
Everything we hold of value on Earth (metals, minerals, energy, real estate) is in infinite quantities in space and I truly believe the first trillionaires will be made on this frontier as we gain access to these resources. Our job is to incrementally, step by step, link our fledgling industry to those gigantic markets.
In the early years I think it is critical for NASA to be supportive of these entrepreneurs. In the same way that the government no longer builds their own computers and instead buys laptops from Dell or Apple, so too will NASA eventually buy spaceflight services from these young and innovative corporations. NASA should be buying parabolic flight services, suborbital flights and orbital flights from private companies. The recent COTS [Commercial Orbital Transportation Services] awards are a good step, but they are a very small bet compared to the future returns that are possible.
What do you think? How safe is the space tourism industry? What is the future of private space travel? Share your thoughts and join the discussion.
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