Promoters of space tourism say private space flights could be available to the public by the end of the decade. Plans are taking shape for a space tourism fleet, and investors are expecting a booming industry within a few years.
Space pioneer Burt Rutan won the $10 million X Prize last year by putting the first man into space aboard a tiny craft called SpaceShipOne. Achieving a first in commercial space exploration, his team recouped some of the $20 million-plus that high tech entrepreneur Paul Allen put into the project.
Mr. Rutan soon had a deal in hand with British tycoon Richard Branson, whose company Virgin Galactic has reportedly accepted thousands of reservations for trips on a five-spaceship fleet that Mr. Rutan will build.
Others met recently in Pasadena to talk about prospects for the fledgling industry. John Spencer of the Space Tourism Society has promoted private space travel since the 1980s.
"In those days, people would laugh at the idea of space tourism," he said. "They don't laugh any more."
There have already been two tourist flights to space. Dennis Tito, a California businessman-turned-Russian-cosmonaut, spent six days aboard the international space station in 2001. He spent $20 million for the privilege. South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth became the second tourist in space the following year, also with help from the Russians.
Matt Everingham of the California Space Authority - which despite its name is a private non-profit group, not a public agency - says both private efforts and recent missions by the U.S. space agency, NASA, have sparked the public's interest.
"The Martian rovers kind of kicked off a new enthusiasm with the public, and I think with SpaceShipOne, that carried it to a whole new level," he said. "And so we're just waiting to see what the next step is."
Space has captured the attention of wealthy people like Paul Allen and Richard Branson, and John Stone of the investment bank Near Earth says others also see potential profits. His company invests in the commercial space and satellite industries.
"We're definitely out to make money," he said. "Ultimately, we think that space is going to be most successful when people can make money off of it because the profit motive is very powerful in humans. At Near Earth, our role is an agency role between the capital markets, where capital is out seeking places to make money, and companies that are looking to raise money, or alternatively, we will also get involved in typical investment banking transactions, mergers and acquisitions, and alliances between companies."
He expects to see much more of that as the space industry grows.
Many private organizations are helping meet the needs of those infected by the space bug. Alex Barnett is executive director of the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, California, which helps train youngsters who hope for a career in the space industry. She says through space-related projects, they learn the principles of physics in a center founded in memory of the seven astronauts lost in the space shuttle Challenger disaster.
"We also have a Challenger learning center, where kids can go on simulated space missions, launching a probe to a comet, or perhaps even landing on the planet Mars," she said. "In those missions, kids learn about teamwork. They learn about math and science, and they learn about what it takes to work together to achieve a common goal."
John Spencer of the Space Tourism Society says the technology to allow tourism in space is being developed, and regulatory problems with government agencies are being overcome.
"It will happen over time," he said. "The fun and interesting thing is that just about anybody can engage now by going to conferences and events, and helping to create the industry. And it's an important industry because in the long run, its infrastructure will allow us to do long-term, large-scale exploration, and eventually colonization of the inner solar system."
Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic plans to send paying passengers on commercial space flights as early as 2008. The trips will be expensive. Tickets will cost $200,000, but promoters of space tourism say the costs should come down quickly after that.
They envision orbital resorts with spectacular views of the earth, with eventual resorts on the moon, and maybe other planets.