Stars -- and dollar signs -- in their eyes

Discovery lands
Discovery in space
STS-121 shuttle
Shuttle Discovery missions
WASHINGTON - They still want to go.

Ten days after the space shuttle Columbia was lost and the seven astronauts on board were killed, space industry entrepreneurs pledged this week to forge ahead with their mission - to turn a buck by sending ordinary people into space.

Ordinary in this case means people who might not be astronauts or members of the military but who are instead very, very rich. It costs at least $15 million to vacation in space these days - and there are few takers at that price.

But as the cost comes down, enthusiasts say, the market can only grow.

"You get it down to $5 million and you'd be amazed at the number of people in this country who have $5 million to burn - lottery winners, inheritances, Hollywood," said Jeffrey Manber, president of MirCorp, which helped arrange California millionaire Dennis Tito's 2001 flight in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Manber was among several hundred executives and government officials who gathered this week for the Federal Aviation Administration's annual conference on commercial space travel - an event where the difficulty of building a hotel on the moon is the stuff of a sober panel discussion.

One panelist opened her presentation with the somber strains of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and closed with REM's more upbeat "Man on the Moon."

But this is no joke. Although the Columbia disaster was on everyone's mind, many said it would not set back the fledgling space tourism market or scare off potential customers - or, as conference attendees like to call them, "citizen explorers."

"I don't think the interest in seeing the Earth from God's perspective has changed," said Jay Edwards, head of Oklahoma's space development program.

He expects, in all seriousness, to launch citizens into suborbit from Oklahoma's spaceport on a former Air Force base in three or four years.

Within reach

Skeptics say such notions are better suited to sci-fi conventions than government conferences, but others say it's well within reach.

The technology is nearly ready, they say, and soon only the government's approval will stand in the way.

Customers are lining up. Space Adventures Ltd. of Arlington, Va., has sold 100 tickets at $98,000 each to send people into space as soon as a private launch vehicle is available.

A spokeswoman said the head of the company called each client after the Columbia explosion, and none asked for a refund.

Neither Space Adventures nor Oklahoma will build the spacecraft that will carry paying customers. That job falls to the 24 companies competing for a $10 million cash prize that goes to the first to build and safely launch a manned space vehicle.

It's called the X Prize, modeled on the $25,000 reward that lured Charles Lindbergh to fly nonstop across the Atlantic in 1927.

For this contest, the vehicle must carry three people into suborbit - at least 62 miles up - then return safely to Earth and repeat the feat within two weeks. On most proposed suborbital vehicles, the entire round trip would take 20 minutes (plus a week of training).

"If you're an adventurer and explorer, the risk is part of the attraction," said Peter H. Diamandis, president of the X Prize Foundation, based in St. Louis. It raised the prize money from foundations, banks and private investors, including author Tom Clancy.

Huge potential market

"There is a danger," Diamandis said, "but the risk is worth it. We're opening a frontier, which will be of tremendous value to society today and our children and their children."

New research indicates a potential billion-dollar market for space tourism. Suborbital space travel could draw 16,000 people a year by 2021, with each person paying $50,000 for the trip, according to a report by the Bethesda-based consulting firm Futron Corp.

The company estimates the orbital space travel market at 60 people a year willing to pay $5 million per trip.

Those forecasts are based on a Futron-commissioned survey of 500 millionaires by Zogby International.

"This is a very promising market," said Philip McAlister, a Futron director. "The demand is definitely there. The challenge is for someone to supply a vehicle that would cost-effectively meet the demand."

Safer than shuttle

Once the first company has done it, several more would have to jump in to create competition and lower the price, experts say. The FAA, which received congressional authority to oversee commercial space ventures in 1984, says it is in pre-application consultations with four companies that want to carry passengers into space.

Officials say suborbital space travel would be safer than that on the space shuttle, which circles the earth at 24 times the speed of sound.

The suborbital vehicles would travel at only four times the speed of sound - about 3,000 mph - and peak at a much lower altitude than the shuttle's orbit, so they would not get as hot during re-entry into the atmosphere.

At suborbital altitudes, passengers would experience several minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the earth and even the entire United States from coast to coast, Diamandis said. He expects the X Prize to be awarded in the next 12 to 18 months.

Lunar hotel

Vehicles for orbital travel - which would provide a better view - are not in private development because they're too expensive. But enthusiasts at the FAA conference predicted that these, too, would come soon enough. And when people stay longer in orbit, they'll need a place to stay.

"Space tourism will eventually require hotels," FAA attorney Laura Montgomery said in introducing a panel on that very topic. She also acknowledged, "I hope one day to be a space tourist. I think it's a noble term."

Members of her panel agreed that a lunar hotel would need such basic amenities as satellite television, constant phone contact with Earth and Internet access. As they discussed legal hurdles facing such a venture, several lawyers said they could be overcome.

"Nothing in the [international space] treaties prohibits me from having a hotel on the moon," said Franceska O. Schroeder, a partner in the Washington firm of Pillsbury Winthrop. To fill such a hotel, the space industry must convince Americans that the stars are within their reach. That doesn't mean making space travel risk-free, entrepreneurs said. It means demystifying something that has only belonged to heroes.

'Right stuff' is wrong

"I think the worst thing ever done to this nation's exploration [of space] is the phrase 'the right stuff,'" said Manber, the MirCorp head. "What makes us human is this intangible dream to explore. Space is not about 'the right stuff' all the time. It's a personal exploration. It's discovery. It's exciting."

And even if NASA grounds the shuttle for several years, as it did after Challenger exploded, that won't keep him from sending people up on private vehicles. "The space shuttle fleet is grounded," Manber said. "America is not grounded."

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