Go Ballistic

You can leave and reenter the atmosphere, feel the kick of a rocket, and see the curvature of Earth. Step right up and lay down your 200 grand.

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Anyone thinking of becoming a pioneering space tourist and forking over $200,000 for five minutes in the cosmos come 2008 or so might want to delay the travel plans. To judge by a recent showcase dubbed “Countdown to the X PRIZE Cup,” held in the high desert of southern New Mexico, your chariot does not exactly await.

Of eight blastoffs and test ignitions meant to wow 13,000 onlookers at Las Cruces airport, near the White Sands missile range, all but two were scrubbed. The first test system, a squat rocket from Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace, remained airborne for maybe eight seconds, returned to Earth with a thud, and fell over onto its side. The fall caused a leak in the fuel lines, forcing cancellation of two more launches that had been promised by Armadillo CEO John Carmack, an endearing motor-mouthed geek in khaki shorts who is funding his space adventure from the fortune he made designing the Doom series of computer games.

The Countdown’s all-day-awaited finale, the test-firing of a kerosene-propelled, 15-ton-thrust engine by Starchaser Industries of Manchester, England, ended in an inferno that blew the engine to bits. A voice of restrained alarm announced over the scratchy two-way radios: “Emergency—we have an emergency situation on the field”—and sinister-looking black smoke wafted for miles out toward the Organ Mountains.

X-Prize Foundation Chairman Peter Diamandis was unperturbed. “Wasn’t that great?” he cried, descending on the press tent as puzzled reporters were interviewing each other, trying to piece together details of the blink-and-you-missed-it Armadillo flight. “Next year we’re going to have two of them racing straight up side by side.”

In fact, Diamandis has earned the right to some enthusiasm. If last year’s X-Prize victory enshrined Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne as the Wright Flyer of the personal-spaceflight revolution, Diamandis is emerging as the movement’s P.T. Barnum. A diminutive 43-year-old given to flashier jewelry and a bossier demeanor than the average guy with an M.D. from Harvard and an engineering degree from MIT, Diamandis established the X-Prize in 1995, later convincing Iranian-American telecommunications entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari to put up $10 million for the winner. While pushing hard to turn the X-competition into an annual event that “families will plan their vacations around,” he is also a lead investor in the two most visible space tourism businesses: Space Adventures, which last autumn took its third

$20 million passenger to the International Space Station, and Zero Gravity Corporation, purveyor of the “vomit comet,” a ballistic Boeing 727 that simulates spaceflight for its passengers by treating them to moments of weightlessness for $3,750 a head.

Diamandis was in an ecstasy of activity at Las Cruces, alternately terrorizing a young aide to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson over a detail of logistics and jumping on photo-ops with visiting dignitaries like Steve Robinson, the astronaut lately returned to Earth after walking in space to remove stray fibers from Discovery’s heat shield. Diamandis’ X-rhetoric is inflammatory in a carefully calculated way. “What the government is doing in space is like IBM of the 1950s,” Diamandis said. “These guys,” he waved at the space tinkerers fitting valves and stenciling logos all around him, “are the Apple Mac. They’re the rocket equivalent of playing Pong on an Atari. They are going to blow by the Lockheeds and the Boeings because the military industrial complex is stuck in its paradigm.”

That sort of talk evidently appeals to a growing number of tycoons who made it big a generation ago by being inventive, outlandish, or lucky. Sir Richard Branson lit the afterburners of the new space race in September 2004, announcing he would stake Rutan to $100 million to build SpaceShipTwo, a winged vehicle comfortable and flight-tested enough to give seven super-platinum customers their whiff of weightlessness aboard Virgin Galactic starlines. (Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen financed SpaceShipOne with $25 million.) Elon Musk, founder of the PayPal e-payment system, is much more quietly backing SpaceX Corporation, which is building some new cargo launchers called Falcons. Amazon.com megapreneur Jeff Bezos is bankrolling Blue Origin. No one knows anything about what they are doing, except that they have the cash to do it.

This trickle of capital has lured from the woodwork a gleefully self-described band of pyromaniacs, overage Trekkies, and former juvenile backyard destroyers addicted to space but too rambunctious to hold desk jobs at NASA. Geoff Sheerin, head of Ontario-based Canadian Arrow, which aims to take passengers beyond the stratosphere aboard a modified version of Nazi Germany’s V-2, spent his leisure time through much of the 1990s skulking around archives at the V-2’s birthplace in Peenemünde, finally laying hands on a buried cache of original technical documents. “I thought life had passed me by until X-Prize came along,” he says. “The prize gave me my first ounce of credibility.” Starchaser boss Steve Bennett quit his job as a chemist in 1992, no longer able to bear the frustration of being prohibited from producing explosions. An appealing bunch of characters to be sure, but would you trust your life to them?

Listen for 10 seconds or so to any spaceflight revolutionary and you will hear the Big Vision, a vague but impassioned rendering of mankind’s multiplanetary future that makes liberal use of analogies to Columbus, the California gold rush, Lindbergh, and other ultimately lucrative leaps into the unknown. “There will definitely be population centers beyond the Earth by the end of this century—space miners, space hotel keepers,” says Esther Dyson, the New York publisher and venture capitalist whose Release 1.0 newsletter took the pulse of the Silicon Valley revolution and who is now an investor in Space Adventures.

eff Greason, CEO of Mojave-based rocket builder XCOR, offers a prediction more concrete but, in its view of human progress, perhaps bleaker. “By the time NASA gets astronauts to Mars, McDonald’s will be there waiting for them,” he quips. Peter Diamandis is, of course, extravagant: “The greatest wealth ever known will be made when we open the space frontier—from its resources, real estate, transportation. The first trillionaires will come from space.”

But to earn the first few nickels on the way to those trillions, the space community is coalescing around entertaining mere millionaires yearning for a suborbital experience. This is a rocket-propelled journey that carves a sharp parabola peaking at an altitude of about 100 kilometers (62 miles), the so-called Karman line, accepted by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale as the atmosphere’s outer limit. From this height, passengers can drink in the epic view of Earth that has so far been limited to government-sanctioned astronauts, and experience microgravity—for the four to five minutes, anyway, that their vehicle takes to come over the top of its arc and hurtle back into Earth’s gravitational field.

Unlike orbital rockets, which accelerate to Mach 25, the parabolic trajectory will require only a fraction of that velocity, no more than three to four times the speed of sound. People of average health and fitness can experience a brush with the infinite. “It’s amazing how out of shape you can be” and still qualify for spaceflight, says Andrew Case, a former University of Maryland physicist who now heads a fledgling trade organization called the Suborbital Institute. “If you’re healthy enough to do white-water rafting, you’re healthy enough for spaceflight.”

Average income is another matter entirely. When it unfurled the business, Virgin Galactic set the $200,000 benchmark—for a ride that, to be fair, will take about two hours altogether plus a week or two of “training” beforehand. Like almost everything else about space tourism, the number at this point is speculative and subject to hot debate. “The going number before Virgin came in was $100,000,” snipes Chuck Lauer, director of business development for Rocketplane, a rival backed by Midwestern billboard entrepreneur George French and the state of Oklahoma. “But if Richard Branson wants to come put $100,000 extra in my pocket, I’ll take it.” Everyone’s business plan, though, depends on “early adapters,” the first consumers to buy a new technology. Early adapters don’t worry about cost, keeping the industry going for a few years at least.

The second revolution-wide consensus—or depending on who is talking, point of pride—is that some of these highest-tax-bracket cosmoneers will get blown up and die a horrible death. Even the Federal Aviation Administration can barely curb its enthusiasm about its inability to guarantee space tourists’ safety. “It was more than 20 years after the Wright brothers that the Civil Aeronautics Board was created, and I wonder whether the progress in aviation could have taken place if it had been regulated before that,” reflects George Nield, deputy associate administrator for commercial space transportation, a post created six years ago to monitor commercial space ventures. “We are working on an informed-consent principle that recognizes space travel is inherently risky. That’s what we do in this country. We allow people to take risks.”

The only sour note, significantly, is sounded by someone who actually has risked his life in space: astronaut Steve Robinson. “It’s really expensive to be safe, and when you’re trying to make a profit, that’s one area that you’re going to look at to make cuts,” he said, surveying the mock-ups and scale models on display at Las Cruces. “Some of these companies seem to understand the engineering challenges involved in spaceflight, and some don’t.”

When it comes to how to deliver the suborbital experience, the unanimous industry machismo is happily replaced by a cacophony of competing designs and modi operandi: from the lean futurist lines of SpaceShipOne, beside a facsimile of which Virgin Galactic vice president Steven Attenborough makes a two-minute appearance with the air of a purebred among mutts, to the workhorse steel cylinder of Canadian Arrow’s proudly reincarnated V-2.

Some rocketeers envision mid-air launches from carrier aircraft, like the White Knight that toted SpaceShipOne. Others are planning on launch pads at New Mexico’s spaceport-to-be, for which the state has just committed $250 million and is concluding long-running negotiations with two old-line ranching families that had grazing leases on the site. Others prefer barges on the Great Lakes. The unofficial X-resourcefulness prize goes by general acclaim to the Toron-to-based da Vinci project. Their ungainly cosmic prototype is slated to dangle until 70,000 feet under the harness of a yet-to-be-built world’s biggest helium balloon, then fire its engines at that altitude. While competitors are paid by stargazing magnates from other fields, da Vinci has survived so far on less than $2 million and thousands of volunteer hours from patriotic Canadian engineers.

But the basic dichotomy in the nascent space tourism business comes down to airplane guys vs. rocket guys. (Few women have yet been drawn to the industry, save as PR operatives on a degeekifying mission.)

The suborbital rocket experience will be an express trip: 15 minutes or so from liftoff to touchdown, but filled (would-be purveyors promise) with enough noise, adrenaline, and wonder to last a lifetime. “This way you’ll feel what Alan Shepard or Gus Grissom felt,” enthuses Starchaser’s Steve Bennett. “You’ve got a spacesuit on, you’re strapped in, these huge engines roaring under your back. This isn’t some kind of flying tour bus.”

Airplane men sniff at the idea that passengers would actually choose 15 minutes crammed into a hatch and a kidney-thumping vertical return to earth, compared to their suspense-building two-hour ascent to the heavens, Learjet-like interiors, and the ease of alighting on wheels rolling down a runway.

The surest sign that the personal spaceflight revolutionaries are onto something may come from their favorite whipping boy, NASA. In a telling exhibition of if-you-can’t-lick-’em-join-’emism, Brant Sponberg, who manages a new NASA program to sponsor X-Prize–style derbies (see “Going Up?” p. 58) joined Diamandis on the Las Cruces airport ramp to announce two: a Suborbital Payload Challenge, which will demand a flight “much higher” than SpaceShipOne’s 100 kilometers, and one for analog lunar landers.

This momentum for private space companies will not long escape the attention of restless venture capitalists, guesses Aneel Pandey, one more cashed-out dot-com’er who has recycled part of his gains into XCOR. “People in the investment community go through stages,” he explains. “There was tech, then house-building. Eventually they will cycle into space exploration.”

That doesn’t mean, though, that anyone is close to ready with a reusable edge-of-space ship built to a commercial budget and offering the comfort and reliability expected by super A-list passengers. “There’s not one big thing left to be done, there’s a thousand little things,” comments XCOR’s Greason, who, Quarter Pounders on Mars aside, is one of the industry’s more thoughtful figures. “Most of all we need flights. If you’re going to say that your system fails less than one time in a thousand, you’d better have 1,000 flights under your belt.”

Potential patrons view space travel as less risky than skydiving or mountain climbing, according to the most frequently cited marketing study in the field, conducted by Virginia-based consultant Futron Corp. While rocketeers from every faction cite the 2002 Futron study as proving potential profitability, the group’s conclusions—based on surveying 450 Americans, each with a net worth in excess of $1 million—are in fact quite modest. Futron projected suborbital passenger volumes creeping up to 2,000 a year only six years after the first flights, which the group optimistically predicted would fly in 2006 and at a pre-Branson cost of $100,000. Those numbers might support two or three moderately profitable spacelines, but will hardly spin off the capital to ignite FAA booster Nield’s vision of “hundreds of manufacturers producing thousands of aircraft.”

And Futron did not even try to factor in the accident that everyone agrees is a certainty sooner or later, the neo-Challenger images of conflagration that will likely be the first serious attention most of the world pays to space tourism.

Peter Diamandis, a man not often left without a comment, says he knows exactly what he will say when the world press comes battering his door after the first fatalities. “I’ll tell them that space is the greatest frontier standing before humanity,” he intones. “That I’m thankful that thousands of people gave their lives to open the American West and other earlier frontiers. That if they don’t want to take risks to be a part of this, they had better stay out of it.”

But first, let’s have a launch.

SpaceShipOne got the free-market-rocketry ball rolling. Eric Long/NASM

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