Boeing buys a ticket for the new space race
The world's most famous plane-maker has signed a deal to send passengers into orbit by 2015
Friday 17 September 2010
"Please ensure your spine is in the stiffened position and your fears of hurtling towards the stars are stowed for take-off. Any passengers not planning to visit the Space Station today should disembark now."
These are niceties you probably will not hear should you become one of the lucky terrestrials to land a spot in the new Boeing "space taxi" that could be blasting off from Cape Canaveral in Florida as soon as in 2015. It will be cosy in there – you, perhaps another couple of casual tourists and, hopefully, three or four professional astronauts.
Catching a cab to the constellations may sound like science fiction, but not according to Boeing. The aviation giant has entered a joint venture with Space Adventures to catapult Joe Public to the stars. Based in Virginia, Space Adventure is the outfit that has arranged already for a very few – and very rich – individuals to visit the International Space Station (ISS) by way of Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. Seven souls have taken that trip.
The Boeing announcement offers a new glimpse into a future where space routes will be commercially exploited and travellers running out of places to see on Earth will suddenly have new, rather inky horizons stretching beyond the planet. Vanishing are the days when space travel is exclusively government-run and funded and blast-off is something you only watch on television. Globe-trotting will no longer do. Prepare to space-trot.
The plan – though it hinges almost entirely on the outcome of squabbles in Washington about the future of Nasa – is for Boeing to build capsules much like the familiar Apollo ones; blunt cones, just 15 feet across, and then send them up to the space station carrying astronauts from Nasa and tourists. Space Adventures will do the marketing, persuading you and me that a week in space might make for a different sort of holiday.
The space-excursion industry already has other players, most notably the British aviation tycoon Richard Branson, the founder of \Virgin Galactic, which expects to begin test flights beyond the Earth's atmosphere, all being well, next year. The company said it welcomes Boeing joining the fray because the two will not be in direct competition.
Customers of the Virgin Galactic, which has its base in the Mojave Desert close to Los Angeles, will be paying far less for a much less involved expedition. They will essentially go up into space for three hours or so and then come back down again, all for around $200,000. If it is anything like the rides already offered on the Soyuz, those riding on the Boeing capsule will pay as much as $40m for a round-trip ticket. They will circumnavigate Earth as they rendezvous with the ISS and they will remain in space, presumably, for days at a time.
"This is not a competing product in any shape, sense or form," said Will Whitehorn, the president of Virgin Galactic, arguing that what Boeing has in mind will "be more like putting lots of Darwins on the Beagle than space tourism".
That US government policy on space exploration is in flux means opportunity and peril for the new Boeing project. The Obama White House is pushing for a new direction for Nasa, under which it would give up trying to develop new spacecraft of its own to ferry astronauts to the ISS – the current shuttle fleet has only about two more missions left before it is retired – and turn instead to commercial companies to develop them. It is into this breach that Boeing hopes to tread. Taking tourists as well as astronauts is a way towards greater viability.
Congress, however, is less convinced about Nasa sub-contracting for spacecraft and would like to see the agency do as it has done before – launch astronauts into space on its own vehicles. But for now, Boeing and Space Adventures are betting that the White House view will prevail, if only because the dollars may not be there for Nasa to continue as before. Boeing was one of seven companies chosen by Nasa earlier this year to begin looking into the commercial development of a "commercial crew" system to provide "low-cost" transportation the ISS.
Boeing is also partnering another firm that expects to build other space labs. These would essentially become orbiting hotels, giving space travellers, of the more distant future, choices of destination beyond the ISS. Eric Anderson, the chairman and founder of Space Adventures, said his company was already in contact with prospective passengers for the space taxi. He also hinted that while he cannot put a price on a ticket yet, it should be cheaper than those already sold for travel with the Russians.
"With our customer experience and Boeing's heritage in human spaceflight, our goal is not only to benefit the individuals who fly to space," he said. "[It's] also to help make the resources of space available to the commercial sector by bringing the value from space back to Earth."
The agreement with Space Adventure "creates another opportunity to jump-start the human migration to space," added Brewster Shaw, Boeing's vice president and general manager of space exploration.
Space tourism pioneers...
The US rocket scientist-turned-investment manager became the first space tourist in 2001 with a seven-day stay at the international space station. He paid an eight-figure sum that some reports put as high as $20m (£13m) for the privilege of going into space.
A South Korean bio-engineer had a hair-raising ride back to Earth when her landing capsule failed to separate on time, sending it into a steep trajectory known as a "ballistic descent". The capsule ended up 230 miles from the landing site and Mrs Yi spoke of how she thought she was going to die.
The sixth space tourist, Richard Garriott, became the first American to follow his father into space. Owen Garriott, a US astronaut, photographed Earth from the Skylab space station in 1973 and was a veteran of numerous space flights. His son also had ambitions of joining Nasa, but owning to his poor eyesight knew that he would never be able to do so. Instead, he developed a series of fantasy computer games, becoming a multimillionaire in the process. The Texan was a board member and investor in the US-based company that organised the space flights for the other millionaires.
The last of the seven paying space tourists that have so far made the trip to the international space station, and – as befitted the founder of the Cirque du Soleil – was the first to blast off while wearing a bulbous red clown's nose. The billionaire stilt-walker and fire-breather paid $35m for the flight, which the Canadian said was to highlight the plight of millions of people who face an uncertain future without access to clean water.
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