The Obama administration is preparing for a space tourism industry that is expected to be worth $1-billion (U.S.) in 10 years, according to the head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space office.
Rocket planes and spaceships to carry passengers beyond the atmosphere, similar to the suborbital hops taken by Mercury astronauts Alan Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom in 1961, are being built and tested, with commercial flight services targeted to begin in 2013 or 2014.
“Based on market studies, we expect to see this type of activity result in a $1-billion industry within the next 10 years,” George Nield, associate administrator for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation testified on Tuesday before the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.
“This is a new and growing industry. If you look at the last 25 years, almost all the launches were for the same basic purposes – to launch a satellite, such as a telecommunications satellite, to orbit – and that level of business for that part of the industry is continuing today. But there are several new segments that we see just on the horizon,” Mr. Nield said.
The boom in launch business is expected to begin this year, he said in the hearing, which was carried via webcast.
NASA has hired two companies, privately owned Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp. , to fly cargo to the International Space Station, a $100-billion research complex orbiting 385 kilometres above Earth. The contracts are worth a combined $3.5-billion.
“We know that’s going to start soon, probably this year,” Mr. Nield said.
Space Exploration Technologies, which is known as SpaceX and owned and operated by entrepreneur Elon Musk, is preparing for a trial run to the station on April 30.
“We need to be careful not to assume that the success or failure of commercial spaceflight is going to hang in the balance of a single flight,” NASA space station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters during a separate news conference.
“If they have problems along the way, it’s the kind of thing you experience in this difficult process of not only trying to launch into low-Earth orbit, but do the next-hardest thing which is to try to rendezvous safely with another spacecraft in orbit,” Mr. Suffredini said.
Also on the horizon are commercial flights that reach at least 100 kilometres above the planet, an altitude that exposes passengers to a few minutes of weightlessness and a view of Earth juxtaposed against the black sky of space.
In addition to tourism, suborbital spaceflights are being marketed and sold to research organizations, educational institutes and businesses that want to conduct experiments and fly payloads in space.
One U.K. company, Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of London-based Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, already has collected about $60-million in deposits for rides that cost $200,000 per person.
“Exactly when those launches will start is hard to predict, but it looks very very clear it’s going to be in the next one or two years,” Mr. Nield said.
Ashton Kutcher has signed up as an astronaut tourist on Virgin’s first spacecraft, Mr. Branson said on his blog.
The British billionaire wrote that Mr. Kutcher, star of television comedy Two and a Half Men, is the 500th customer to sign up for a ride on a Virgin Galactic flight into suborbital space.
“I gave Ashton a quick call to congratulate and welcome him. He is as thrilled as we are at the prospect of being among the first to cross the final frontier (and back!) with us and to experience the magic of space for himself,” Mr. Branson said on his blog.
Mr. Kutcher will travel on SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot spaceship being built and tested by Scaled Composites, an aerospace company founded by aircraft designer Burt Rutan and now owned by Northrop Grumman.
Virgin Galactic, which plans to begin commercial operations next year, will launch from Spaceport America, a specially designed terminal and runway in a remote stretch of desert in southern New Mexico.
Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, congratulated the company on Monday for selling its 500th ticket. She said she's looking forward to “the beginning of the commercial passenger space line industry.”
A spokesperson for Mr. Kutcher did not return a call seeking comment.
Mr. Branson said he and his children will be on the first commercial flight and considers Virgin Galactic, which is the most visible of a handful of companies developing spaceships for tourism, “the most exciting business we have ever launched.”
With a file from Christine Kearney