Targeting Your Niche: Space Travel

It might seem like a dream, but several companies are positioning to make space tourism a reality

By: R. Scott Macintosh

It is all systems go for space tourism, even for those who can’t afford the $20 million trip to the International Space Station.

A leisurely vacation into the final frontier may have once been the stuff of science fiction, but proponents say space tourism today is becoming a reality; and one that isn’t just for millionaires.

A new industry is taking shape, with new products in development that are expected to take the concept of space tourism into the mainstream and set the wheels in motion for the commercialization of space.

Peter Diamandis, a Los Angeles based entrepreneur, has been behind the drive into space.

Diamandis is a co-founder of Space Adventures, the Arlington, Va.-based tour operator that launched space tourism alongside business tycoon Dennis Tito on the first tourist trip to the International Space Station.

Diamindis also runs Los Angeles-based ZERO-G, a company with a mission to make space and space-related experiences more accessible and affordable.

The company hopes to soon launch a program that will allow customers to experience zero gravity, hence the name. A special aircraft will be able to simulate the feeling of weightlessness, for minutes at a time, by running parabolic maneuvers through the sky.

Although sister-company Space Adventures already operates zero-gravity flights in Russia, ZERO-G is expected to offer new options in the United States.

“Our aspiration is one of getting people to experience zero gravity at an affordable price,” Diamandis said. “We want to get people thinking about it as an experiential sport, like bungee jumping or sky diving.”

After that, a race is already under way among aerospace engineers and big-name investors working to design a new aircraft that would be the first step toward commercialization of space.

Diamandis raised $10 million for a prize, called the X-Prize, which will be awarded to the first team that builds a sub-orbital aircraft that takes two crews beyond Earth’s atmosphere twice within two weeks.

Donors include authors like Tom Clancy and Arthur C. Clarke, as well as venture capitalists, scientists and philanthropists.

Some 24 teams from around the world are competing for the prize, some have already completed test flights.

“The technology is already there and has been there for years,” said ZERO-G spokesman, Ian Murphy. “The only question is can we make it safe and affordable.”

Diamandis is predicting that the prize will be won within the year and commercial sub-orbital flights will soon follow, beginning with barnstorming rides, similar to the early days of aviation when planes quickly went up and quickly came down.

The first of the commercial sub-orbital flights will cost close to $100,000 a ride, but as the field develops the price will come down and sub-orbital aircraft might eventually be used for more practical purposes, such as commercial aviation. It could also open up the possibility of more accessible trips into orbit.

“The objective of the X-Prize is to bring about a paradigm shift in the public’s view of space travel,” Diamandis said. “It’s not just something for astronauts and millionaires, it should be something available for everyone.”

For now, space travel is big bucks and Space Adventures is the only company that has successfully booked orbital trips.

In its most recent enterprise the company is planning the first mission to the International Space Station just for tourists.

The company recently bought a rocket for the trip and two seats are available, each going for $20 million.

Already there is a list of close to a dozen contenders who are interested in taking the flight. The first person approved for the trip gets to keep the capsule.

“There is a multi-billion-dollar market for space tourism there today,” said Eric Anderson, CEO of Space Adventures. “There is an incredible market of people out there wanting to experience space.”

In the meantime, if the price for a trip into space seems out of this world, Space Adventures also offers more affordable options including flights aboard a variety of supersonic Russian MiGs.

One option is called the “Edge of Space” flight, which climbs over 99 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere, to about 85,000 feet, before descending.

The company has also started booking sub-orbital flights, even though a workable aircraft has yet to be developed.

Space Adventures packages the entire trip and the adventure flights are only part of the experience, according to the company.

A high-touch VIP treatment is also a part of the package, with stays in luxury Russian hotels and top-notch wining and dining.

“We aren’t a tour operator,” said Anderson. “We’re an experience operator. What we offer are life-changing experiences.”