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Rutan and Allen
Burt Rutan (left, with Paul Allen) believes that suborbital vehicles have to be designed differently than X Prize-class vehicles in order to be commercially successful. (credit: J. Foust)

Suborbital spaceflight: tourism vs. barnstorming

The events of the last several months have given rise to considerable optimism about the prospects of suborbital space tourism. The flights of SpaceShipOne, most notably its June 21 flight to 100 kilometers, have provided an existence proof that suborbital vehicles designed to carry passengers can be developed commercially. In the last two weeks a race has emerged for the $10-million Ansari X Prize between SpaceShipOne, by Scaled Composites, and the upstart da Vinci Project and its Wild Fire vehicle. It’s possible that, if goes well, there could be three or more commercial suborbital flights within a week at the end of September and early October as these two teams make their final push for the prize. In the meantime, a number of other X Prize teams, and companies not competing for the prize, continue to make progress on their vehicles.

All this progress would suggest that the dawn of the suborbital space tourism era is nearly upon us. Some have even predicted that the first commercial suborbital space tourist may fly before the end of the year. Yet, it’s notable that a number of players, including some of the leading prize competitors, are looking beyond the X Prize-class of small suborbital vehicles at a new generation of larger ones, capable of carrying seven or more passengers, that, they believe, will be required for suborbital space tourism to become a commercial success.

Rutan’s vision of space tourism

At the forefront in this push for larger vehicles is Burt Rutan himself. Speaking at press conferences in Mojave just before and after SpaceShipOne’s historic June flight, Rutan saw the vehicle as only a stepping stone towards larger vehicles. Much of that had to do with the inherent differences between orbital and suborbital flight.

“Suborbital tourism is very different from orbital tourism,” he said. “I don’t think orbital space tourism makes sense if you fly in a vehicle where you stay in it for your whole vacation, because it has to be small and cramped. So you go to a resort hotel in orbit, and you fly something small and cramped to the hotel because it’s cheap.”

“Suborbital tourism is very different from orbital tourism,” said Rutan. “You can’t put a hotel up there.”

Rutan calls that kind of vehicle a “transfer van” (he said he “adamantly” refuses to call it a “shuttle”), devoted to quickly and cheaply ferrying passengers to and from an orbital destination. That approach, though, won’t work for suborbital flights because passengers will spend the entire trip in the same vehicle. “Suborbital is different; you can’t put a hotel up there,” he said. “For suborbital space tourism you have got to give everyone a large window and space close to it. And you have to give people a lot of room.”

Suborbital space tourist vehicles also have to fly different flight profiles than those optimized to win the X Prize. “I particularly feel that 100 kilometers is not good enough. You have to go to 150 kilometers to give people time to unstrap and float around. You have got to give them the experience in the spaceship that does not have a destination. I believe that those who survive in the business of suborbital space tourism airlines—call it what you want—it has to be a spacious vehicle with very large windows.”

Economics also warrants the development of a larger vehicle, Rutan believes. “It makes an enormous difference to fly six or ten people, because whether you’re flying six or ten people you’re flying the same avionics, you’re flying one pilot, you’re flying the same preflight and postflight checkout, and those are the expensive things,” he said. “The pilot and just checking it out before and after the flight costs more than the propellant. So it’s an enormous difference if you have at least six seats.”

“I’m not a business guy,” he said later, “but I’ve run some numbers, and I believe it has to have at least five, maybe six seats.” This, he said, would allow ticket prices to fall to as low as $30,000, with a second generation of larger vehicles bringing the price down to perhaps $10,000.

There has been no shortage of suggestions, including some from Rutan himself, that such a larger vehicle is in the planning stages. “The spaceship is model number 316 and the White Knight is model number 318,” Rutan said at the preflight press conference in June. “I will be making a presentation very quick of a model number 346.” Rutan didn’t reveal any characteristics of this vehicle, or even state whether it was in fact a suborbital spacecraft, although he did say that these were all “numbers that I put on the napkin” that he used to sketch out the plan in his initial meeting with Allen.

“I’m not a business guy,” Rutan said, “but I’ve run some numbers, and I believe [a suborbital vehicle] has to have at least five, maybe six seats.”

It’s not the first time Rutan has hinted at the development of larger successor vehicles. In September of last year, speaking at the annual symposium of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, Rutan ended his progress report on SpaceShipOne with a slide labeled “a Future Space Tourism Ride?” The slide showed a cutaway diagram of what appeared to a be a scaled-up version of SpaceShipOne, carrying a pilot and ten passengers, one of whom was floating in the cabin above the other seated passengers. Rutan didn’t address the slide during his presentation, leaving only the slide itself as a tantalizing hint of his future plans. (See “SpaceShipOne: A progress report”, The Space Review, September 29, 2003.)

Other developments

Rutan is not the only vehicle developer with an eye on larger vehicles. At a press conference in Santa Monica, California, on July 27, Brian Feeney, leader of the da Vinci Project, also said his team was looking at developing a larger successor to Wild Fire. This unnamed vehicle would be capable of carrying eight persons. Like Wild Fire, it would be air-launched, but using an airplane rather than a balloon. The vehicle would use the same engine system as Wild Fire, which Feeney claimed would allow for a much shorter development time: he estimated the vehicle could fly as soon as the end of 2005, although many outsiders consider that estimate highly optimistic. In any case, it suggested that Wild Fire’s flight history will be a short one, regardless of how successul it is in the race to win the X Prize.

“Our long-term goal is to stay with the industry and continue to pioneer a way all the way to orbit,” Feeney said. “The objective is to get into space and stay there.”

Outside of the X Prize competitors there are other companies looking at suborbital vehicles, including Seattle-based Blue Origin. Funded by founder Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin has been tight-lipped about its vehicle plans. However, a Newsweek article last year the revealed the existence of the company reported that the company was building a seven-person suborbital vehicles. Other sources familiar with the effort have suggested that the firm settled on a larger vehicle because an X Prize-class vehicle, with only two passengers, didn’t make enough money for the business plan to close.

Barnstorming and tourism

So what does this all mean for space tourism? These developments suggest that wide-scale space tourism, with thousands of even hundreds of passengers a year, might have to wait until the development of a new generation of larger vehicles, capable of carrying six or more people below the $100,000/passenger level widely quoted today. These vehicles may be derived from smaller vehicles designed for the X Prize competition, or be clean-sheet designs.

“Our long-term goal is to stay with the industry and continue to pioneer a way all the way to orbit,” Feeney said.

However, this doesn’t mean that there will be no space tourism market until these vehicles enter service. These X Prize-class vehicles may well be able to serve a niche market of people with a strong interest in space—or simply a desire to be among the first commercial space tourists—coupled with the ability to pay $100,000 or so for the privilege. This niche market could live on even after the introduction of larger vehicles if these smaller vehicles can offer a personalized, premium flight experience of some kind.

Even Rutan acknowledges that these smaller vehicles will be in commercial service in the near future. “There will be earlier barnstorming-like flights, you know, this crazy $100,000 stuff, relatively soon,” Rutan said in June. “But I don’t look at that as space tourism. I look at it when we have a mature industry that will be flying people on these flights for more like $30,000 to $50,000, something like that.”

“I believe,” he said, “within 10 to 15 years there will be affordable suborbital flights.”