Image: SpaceDev unveiling
Lewis Geyer / Times-Call file
Malcom Buckley, 4, plays underneath a full-scale mockup of SpaceDev's Dream Chaser spaceship during its unveiling in June 2006 in Colorado. Since that time, the suborbital spaceflight projects undertaken by SpaceDev and other companies have been going through a difficult childhood.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
updated 10/25/2007 11:38:17 AM ET 2007-10-25T15:38:17

Three years after SpaceShipOne fired the opening shot of what some called a revolution , the space tourism industry is going through a difficult childhood.

The past year has seen setbacks, ranging from a fatal accident in July to a major spaceship deal that went sour last week. But some of the setbacks are providing an opening for players that are still trying to get into the fray, including the major aerospace companies.

Those setbacks and opportunities are in the spotlight here this week at the International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight, a gathering of entrepreneurs and space-savvy government officials as well as past and future space travelers.

Peter Diamandis, who as co-founder of the X Prize Foundation orchestrated the $10 million prize that SpaceShipOne won in 2004, told attendees at Wednesday's opening session that private-sector rocketeers were facing "a critical time."

"We're in that phase where if we stop pushing, it stops," Diamandis said.

Entrepreneurs in the commercial space race are still pushing, as evidenced by the buzz about renewed ventures to be announced later in the week. And this weekend could well bring a million-dollar triumph for one band of rocketeers, the Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace team.

Led by video-game millionaire John Carmack, Armadillo is thought to have a better than even chance of winning a NASA-backed prize in the $2 million Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. The vertical-launch contest is the marquee event at the X Prize Cup, an air and rocket expo scheduled Saturday and Sunday at Holloman Air Force Base, near Alamogordo, N.M.

This week's symposium serves as a warmup for the X Prize Cup, and also as an annual assessment of the private spaceflight industry. Over the past year, developments have contributed to a somewhat more sober assessment this time around.

Accident's aftermath
The most significant setback came in July: Three workers died when a nitrous-oxide tank flew apart during an engine test at Scaled Composites, the California-based company that built the SpaceShipOne rocket plane. Scaled is building a scaled-up version of SpaceShipOne for Virgin Galactic, a company backed by British billionaire Richard Branson.

Alex Tai, chief operating officer for Virgin Galactic, said he could not comment on the cause of the accident because it was still under investigation. He did say that the hybrid propulsion system being developed for SpaceShipTwo would be reviewed as a result of the accident, along with other aspects of the rocket plane's design.

"Certainly this is a natural time to review all of this," he told reporters.

Virgin Galactic is regarded as the front-runner among a half-dozen companies seeking to send tourists on suborbital flights to altitudes of 62 miles (100 kilometers) or more. From that height, fliers could feel a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curving Earth beneath the black sky of space — and scores of would-be passengers are paying $200,000 per seat to sign up.

Last year, Tai told the symposium's attendees that Virgin Galactic was holding $15 million in deposits. Since then, the figure has risen to $31 million, Tai said Wednesday. It's not clear when those passengers would start flying, however: For now, the most optimistic guess would be late 2009 or 2010, the earliest possible time frame for finishing work on Virgin Galactic's home base at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Redoing the deal
On the orbital side of the commercial space race, the big prize is NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS. Last year, NASA offered Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Kistler and California-based SpaceX almost $500 million to encourage the development of spaceships capable of transporting cargo between Earth and the international space station after the space shuttle fleet's scheduled retirement in 2010.

Last week, however, NASA pulled the plug on its deal with Rocketplane Kistler, saying that the company failed to meet a pledge to bring in $500 million in private investment and as a result stopped work on its K-1 launch vehicle.

Rocketplane Kistler is appealing the decision, but NASA nevertheless went ahead with a new call for new COTS proposals. Those proposals are due Nov. 21. The money that NASA held back from Rocketplane Kistler — $174.7 million — would be awarded to the new winner or winners by next February, said Valin Thorn, deputy program manager for NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program.

Among those likely to compete in the COTS do-over are five companies that are already working with NASA on spaceship designs but aren't currently getting any of NASA's cash: Constellation Services International, PlanetSpace, SpaceDev, Spacehab and Transformational Space. Based on Thorn's presentation, some of the companies' concepts featured something old or something borrowed:

  • CSI's LEO Express concept calls for sending up a canister that would rendezvous with Russia's workhorse Progress spacecraft, then dock as a unit with the international space station.
  • SpaceDev is sticking with its Dream Chaser concept, which is based on the HL-20 lifting body developed by NASA in the 1980s. The spaceship could be launched atop a suborbital rocket, NASA's next-generation Ares 1 rocket or an Atlas 5 from the United Launch Alliance.
  • PlanetSpace could be updating as many as three old rocket technologies: the V-2 engines pioneered by the Nazis during World War II; a hypersonic glider based on the FDL-7 design of the 1960s; and Lockheed Martin's Athena 3 rocket, which was designed in the 1990s but never flew.

United Launch Alliance, the joint venture involving aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin, says it is working with CSI, SpaceDev and Spacehab and could get in on some of the COTS funding — thus benefiting from a program that was designed to develop alternatives to the cost-plus approach favored by Boeing and Lockheed Martin in the past.

Michael Holguin, a program manager at United Launch Alliance, told the "New Space" audience that "Old Space" was capable of evolving as the space industry changes.

"We think there's a lot of synergy between us ... dinosaurs, if you will, and the commercial human spaceflight industry," Holguin said.

SpaceX on track, for now
SpaceX, meanwhile, has been meeting its COTS milestones along the way toward demonstration launches of its Falcon 9 rocket in late 2008 and 2009.

"I actually feel pretty confident about getting hardware to the Cape by the end of next year," Elon Musk, the company's millionaire founder, told reporters.

After that point, "external dependencies" such as regulatory requirements could conceivably force delays in the COTS timetable, Musk said. But for now, he saw nothing that would force SpaceX to deviate from what he called the "'things go right' schedule."

In the nearer term, SpaceX's next Falcon 1 launch attempt is tentatively targeted for the first quarter of next year, Musk said. Even though the company has yet to put a payload into orbit, SpaceX has been taking in money for future launches. Because of that income from long-term contracts, Musk said SpaceX had a positive cash flow and would likely turn a profit this year.

Musk, who made his fortune as a co-founder of the PayPal online payment service, said he was hopeful that SpaceX would yield a similar return when the company goes public, "maybe two or three years from now."

"It actually has the potential to exceed the return on PayPal," he told reporters.

Diamandis agreed with Musk's upbeat assessment: He said the personal spaceflight industry could sustain an "exothermic economic reaction" and become unstoppable in five years' time — that is, if space entrepreneurs continued pushing ahead. All it would take is that "first Netscape event," such as a successful SpaceX public offering, he said.

"If you're in this business, you're an optimist," Diamandis said. "If you're a realist, you're selling real estate, on Earth. If you're not an optimist, you're not in this business. ... Sure, is this industry a few years behind our optimistic schedule when SpaceShipOne flew? Absolutely. But do I have any question that the industry is going to materialize? None whatsoever."

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