The Final Frontier, Part 3: Working Out the Details

At US$30 million a ticket for orbital space travel and about $200,000 for suborbital trips, demand can only go so far. Before space tourism can really take off — so to speak — prices are going to have to come down, and that may require a new business model.

Part 1 of this three-part series discusses the latest advances in commercial space travel. Part 1 also includes predictions about the future of this industry. For instance, by 2021, more than 15,000 passengers could be flying on suborbital trips each year, representing revenues in excess of US$700 million, according to the aerospace consultancy Futron.

Part 2 of this three-part series discusses a suborbital transit method called “point-to-point transportation” — which would use suborbital travel to deliver cargo or people from one place on Earth to another faster than ever before — and space hotels.

While many early efforts have been single-use vehicles that use built-in solid fuel that cannot be replenished without replacing the entire rocket system, one of the first requirements of viable commercial travel will be reusable vehicles that can be refueled, Paul Czysz, professor emeritus of aerospace engineering at St. Louis University, told TechNewsWorld.

Indeed, many early launch vehicles have been reminiscent of the Conestoga wagons that moved pioneers across the United States, Czysz said, in that the design of those wagons meant they could really only survive the trip west — not a return trip back again. “There is no record of any wagon returning to the east,” he explained. “The cost of traveling west was not reduced until the railroad transportation system was established that could operate frequently with a payload in both directions.”

The Frequency Factor

Successful space vehicles will need to be able to fly repeatedly without requiring downtime for refurbishment and repair, Czysz said — otherwise, ticket prices will remain high to cover the price of an overhaul after each flight.

Once a vehicle travels often enough, the cost of a ticket need only cover part of the costs of fuel, he added, making for a much cheaper price. For example, while a vehicle that flies once a week may have to charge $200,000 to $250,000 to cover its costs, one that flies once a day could potentially drop that price to $5,000; flying twice a day, the ticket price could go as low as $1,000, Czysz explained.

“Put yourself in the business of a transportation system,” he commented. “Instead of building a circus act, space travel companies will have to build something reliable and dependable enough that it flies reliably all the time.”

The ‘V’ Factor

As the Vomit Comet’s nickname all too vividly suggests, motion sickness will be another issue for some people who travel to space.

“At least half of the people who have gone to space got sick and threw up,” Czysz said. “That kind of motion, when you’re standing and rotating without gravity, sends your body the same messages as when you’re pitching on a boat.”

It can be difficult to predict ahead of time, he noted, “but if you find someone who can’t take seasickness, he’s not going to be able to take being in orbit either.”

Yet the experience may be worth it: Fifty-two percent of the respondents to a survey by aerospace consultancy Futron said that physical discomfort would make no difference in their decision to purchase a two-week orbital flight.

Infinity and Beyond

Jackie Blumer, a fourth grade teacher of science and social studies at Greenville Elementary in Greenville, Ill., has made two zero-gravity flights — one through Zero Gravity and one through NASA’s Explorer Schools program, in which Greenville Elementary participates.

Though she took motion-sickness medicine both times, she still got sick on one of the flights. “Zero gravity was not a problem, but during the 2G phase you feel that pressure and shouldn’t make any sudden movements,” Blumer told TechNewsWorld. “I was doing all the things I was told not to.”

However, recovery was almost immediate. “I went right back to doing flips,” Blumer said — though there were those who couldn’t finish the flight.

Once technical wrinkles such as these get worked out, there’s no telling what may come next in commercial space travel.

“We can’t predict what we do in space that will drive us to do more,” said Geoff Sheerin, president and CEO of PlanetSpace, “but in the end, there will be some discovery we make that will change all the rules.”

Mining the asteroids is one frequently raised possibility; colonizing the moon is another. However, “there isn’t another habitable planet in our solar system,” Czysz cautioned. “Even the moon is not habitable — we’d have to take up our environment to survive.

“We’re not going to go out and populate the rest of space,” he said, “but the potential is unlimited. We need dreamers to make it happen.”

One Step at a Time

For now, the various efforts are moving ahead one step at a time.

Recognizing that so much is still unknown, “we’re moving forward by putting together capabilities that we think will allow us to respond to a changing market and changing demands for space,” Sheerin said.

In the end, some of the efforts underway today will succeed, others won’t. “But ultimately we’ll all benefit,” he concluded. “The strength of a free market society is its entrepreneurial spirit. That driver is going to change space forever.”

Those who get to travel will also be changed forever. “There’s nothing like it in the world,” Blumer said. “You can’t really know what it’s like until you’ve experienced it yourself. I’d love to be a guinea pig for any of the new possibilities.”

The Final Frontier, Part 1: Commercial Space Travel Takes Off

The Final Frontier, Part 2: From Planetary Cargo to Space Hotels

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