The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

EADS Astrium space plane illustration
Astrium has shelved its plans for a suborbital space plane in large part because of the economy, but other ventures are continuing on. (credit: EADS Astrium)

Can space tourism survive the economic downturn?

The travel and tourism industry worldwide is suffering: one only has to see the number of great travel deals being offered by airlines and hotels to understand that things are pretty bad. For the space tourism and private space travel industry, the question may be one of survival. Space travel by non-governmental individuals is, almost by definition, a luxury service. In bad economic times luxury goods and services tend to be regarded as dispensable. So how will the few firms that are actually offering these services survive the downturn?

To all intents and purposes there are only three companies that are in the business: Space Adventures, Virgin Galactic, and XCOR Aerospace. The first of these has succeeded in launching six paying customers to the ISS on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft. Their first repeat client, Charles Simonyi, has just arrived on the station for his second visit.

There has been some speculation that this may be the last time a Space Adventures client visits this ISS. Maybe so, but in spite of the obstacles it is doubtful that Russia will willingly give up such a lucrative source of both revenue and prestige. So long as the only way for a private individual to get into orbit remains a Russian monopoly, Moscow will likely do everything in its power to keep this business alive.

Virgin Galactic and its supplier, Scaled Composites, have been making considerable progress towards the first test flight of SpaceShipTwo (SS2) in late 2009, with the first paying customers flying in 2010. This schedule may slip, but for the moment there is every reason to think that they can stick to it.

Space tourism offers something more than just thrilling rides to those that can now afford it. It offers us all a vision of a hopeful future where people can fulfill their dreams and aspirations off this planet as well as on it.

The test flight program for WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) is moving slowly but steadily ahead, and the aircraft’s performance is living up to expectations. One important aspect of the program is the alternative uses for WK2 that may be keep the cash flowing even if there are fewer suborbital tourists than initially planned (see “Virgin looks beyond space tourism”, The Space Review, February 9, 2009). The uses for the craft for testing UAV components has already been pioneered by Scaled’s Proteus aircraft and with more and more military UAVs being designed and built, a specialized test platform such as the WK2 will have plenty of work to do. Further down the road is the possibility of using the aircraft to launch small rockets into orbit, but so far that is mostly speculation.

Richard Branson’s Virgin empire would seem solid enough to survive the recession and emerge better than ever. The ruthlessness that they showed in closing down their retail outlets is a sign that they do not intend to let today’s troubles endanger the long-term health of the empire. Yet, in uncertain times no one can afford to be too comfortable.

As better times return Branson’s outfit will be well placed to profit from the resurgence of optimism and relief that will inevitably accompany any new growth. This will be particularly true in the US where optimism in a built-in fact of cultural life. Hundreds of Americans flying into space above New Mexico could be a powerful symbol of the emergence of the economy from the slump.

Meanwhile XCOR’s Lynx project just may be the tortoise to Virgin’s hare. The small Mojave-based company is moving steadily ahead towards its first flight sometime next year. Last December they tested their liquid oxygen/kerosene engine and Rocketship Tours, the firm that will operate the first Lynx, hope to have their first revenue producing flight after 2010.

With the current climate, marked by envy and resentment, space tourism is an obvious target for those seeking to blame the rich. However, the NewSpace industry, of which space tourism is only a part, provides hope to millions of people who believe, if only instinctively, that humanity’s future is connected to its expansion into the solar system.

In the long term, free enterprise and the human desire to build a better future will beat envy and gloom every time. Space tourism offers something more than just thrilling rides to those that can now afford it. It offers us all a vision of a hopeful future where people can fulfill their dreams and aspirations off this planet as well as on it.