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Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log

Feedback on the outlook for space tourism

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June 18, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
Who wants to go to space?
Studies have indicated that thousands of people would eventually be willing to take suborbital rides like Monday's scheduled SpaceShipOne trip. But at what point does the allure of a rocket-powered thrill outweigh the perceived risk of catastrophic failure? If you had the money and the opportunity, would you take a passenger seat on Monday's flight?

Most of the folks who have already signed up for a future suborbital jaunt say they would, according to an informal survey by Space Adventures.

The Virginia-based company has collected deposits from more than 100 would-be space tourists — and claims the title of the world's first "spaceline." (That point is debatable.) In addition to its suborbital aspirations, Space Adventures already has helped put millionaires Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth in orbit, and is currently working with inventor/entrepreneur Greg Olsen. There are even rumblings that the company may be involved in talks on a future space-themed reality-TV show.

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Space Adventures said its survey, conducted this week, showed that 69 percent of those who paid deposits of at least $10,000 would be willing to take a seat on SpaceShipOne's first flight. Nearly half of the respondents said their biggest reason for wanting to take a suborbital flight was to see Earth from space — which meshes with the results from a wider-ranging and oft-quoted Futron/Zogby survey in 2002.

Space Adventure's list price of $102,000 would cover the ride on a yet-to-be-developed suborbital spaceship — say, SpaceShipThree or Four — as well as a four-day "preparation and training experience."

"It would be the ultimate adventure, to not only be one of the first suborbital spaceflight passengers, but to also be a part of opening the space frontier to commercial travel" the company quoted British client Per Wimmer as saying.

What do you think? Here's a selection of the feedback I've received over the past week on space tourism in general, and the efforts of SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan and financial backer Paul Allen in particular:

Mark E. Weber, Houston: "Once SpaceShipOne flies to space next Monday, the floodgates will be opened. People will suddenly be aware of the fact that space travel, albeit only to the edge of space, is possible for the average person. The next stage is constructing a larger model of the SpaceShipOne capable of carrying more than two passengers, and that will come fast because the basic design will be proven. Five years sounds about right to get new space startup companies offering product. I'm also sure that while someone will be working on building a larger model of SpaceShipOne, other companies will be working on their own designs, and someone will be working on a ship capable of reaching the international space station, the next logical step to space tourism. Hold onto your seats, it's going to be a fast few years."

David Williams, Arlington, Texas: "I personally am a fan of Rutan, his designs and accomplishments. I find it difficult to believe that Allen and Rutan are developing this technology for something that would only amount to an expensive amusement ride. The Ansari X Prize certainly made the R&D costs more attractive. The benefit of cashing in on the short-term amusement rides into space further offsets any production costs there may be. However, with billions of dollars of space junk orbiting Earth, its time for us to develop the technology to harvest this 'field of dreams.' After that, the sky is the limit, and the common man's travel in space is less than a generation away."

Sameer, Dallas: "Right now, suborbital space travel is in a phase much similar to the early 20th century, when the Wright brothers and the rest were trying to get a machine to fly. It is driven by curiosity and by the urge to do what no one has done before. It is pertinent to note that air travel developed and advanced consistently because of military use in the world wars, and later as the fastest and one of the safest modes of public transport. There was a commercial utility that led to the airline industry developing to the present state. While suborbital flights may have some scientific use, I am not sure if it has been thought of as a transport utility. So while the development cycle will be much, much quicker than airplanes, due to advances in technology, the application side will ultimately decide how big a market suborbital space travel becomes. I don't see it going a long way if it is just a super-expensive theme park ride!"

Harald Jensen, Guatemala: "I'm quite sure that there will be space vacations sometime in the future. The question is, how long into the future? I'm uncertain about the years it took for airlines to offer regular service over the Atlantic after Lindy made his prize-winning trip to Paris. I would guess it will take about half as much for spacelines to offer suborbital experiences in the future!"

Dayle Smith, Baton Rouge, La.: "Flash in the pan? Sort of ... The Russians have been selling flights in their MiGs for almost 20 years now. While it's died off some, it hasn't totally vanished. But this flash in the pan may actually bring the average person into space. Because when the novelty of this one wears off, they will push higher, soon to the ISS to visit (oh boy, NASA will love that...). And in the not too distant future, low Earth orbit will be commercialized, someone will put up a 'tin-can' station to do a 'one-up' for the tourists, and it will go from there. As long as the feds don't do something like make it impossible because of regulatory headaches. Once the first wave goes, it will prove the market concept, and that will pull the next wave that was riding the fence."

Wade Whitlock, Aberdeen, Md.: "A sub-orbital hop for $100K? If people are going for it they would appear to have far more disposable income than they know what to do with. If the price comes down to something only mildly obscene, they should hold out for a short orbital sojourn, at least three orbits! Unless there is some sort of governmental subsidy (and I hope not!), the economics resemble those of the Concorde. Best described as ridiculous. I vote for the flash, or am I panning it?"

INTERACTIVE
SpaceShipOne
How it works
Patrick Bishop, Caldwell, N.J.:
"Don't forget the 80/20 rule — 80 percent of your revenues come from 20 percent of your customers. For the space tourism market, that means repeat flyers. A $30K-50K 15-minute ride above the atmosphere may not have many repeat customers. I think we are looking at the early stages of an extremely expensive fad limited mostly to movie stars and others of that ilk. But if we can offer $30K-50K weekend excursions into low Earth orbit where people will have an opportunity to experience 'Club Med in space' with free-fall dining, a massage, dancing, and Earth-gazing through a picture window ... we have an industry. Can you imagine playing handball in a weightless court? The best thing I can say about the Ansari X Prize is that it may represent a 'stimulus model' for more serious efforts to loft realistic revenue-generating recreational systems into orbit, but the achievements of its current class of competitors are just stunts, not long-run commercially viable programs. Think orbiting cruise ships, not suborbital cannonballs."

Daniel, Germantown, Md.: "The fuss surrounding the X Prize has been culminating for almost a decade. That's hardly a flash in the pan. On the other hand, I think some people are a little too optimistic about just how large the market is for these types of flights. X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis thinks it's going to change the world, but I don't see how that can happen if the only thing they're offering is a simple 'ride' into space. After the novelty of this wears off, these brief 'space hops' will be of no more value or interest to the general public than, say, the weightless parabola flights offered in Russia. Yeah, there's a market for that kind of thing, but it's hardly changed the world."

Illero, Sedona, Ariz.: "If I had the money, I would rather take a suborbital or orbital flight over any trip to anywhere, anytime. Climbing to the top of Everest?... Nah, not half as good. Spending a week in Cancun with six supermodels? Well, that's getting close to equal. Basically, there is definitely a market and probably always will be."

June 18, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Volcano Above the Clouds'
The Economist: The benefits of bilingualism
Defense Tech: Is Euro-GPS ready for orbit?
Skeptical Inquirer: How Skyhook sparked UFO craze

June 17, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Robots join Hall of Fame:
This year's inductees into the Robot Hall of Fame, announced today by Carnegie Mellon University, include machines that sometimes seem all too human.

Like last year's selections, this year's lineup mixes factual and fictional robots.

"The Robot Hall of Fame honors robots from science fiction as well as science, and should not exist merely to honor early technology development," Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple and chief executive officer of Wheels of Zeus, said in today's announcement. "It should also reward early inspirations that help robots make it among us."

The second-year selections include:

  • Honda's Asimo robot, arguably one of the world's most advanced humanoid robots. Thanks to its vision system and human-modeled frame, Asimo can walk, climb stairs and even dance the Hula.
  • Astroboy, the animated character that has inspired a cult following in Japan and around the world. Astroboy (who was also known in the early years as Atom Boy) was created by Osamu Tezuka in 1951.
  • C3PO, the fussy android that co-starred with R2-D2 in the "Star Wars" movie saga. R2-D2 was among last year's first quartet of Hall of Fame honorees.
  • Robby the Robot, the genial interplanetary servant in the 1950s sci-fi classic "Forbidden Planet." Robby was the favorite of Cosmic Log readers in last year's informal Hall of Fame talent search.
  • Shakey the Robot, the first mobile robot able to reason about its actions. Shakey was created at the Stanford Research Institute back in the 1960s.

INTERACTIVE
Honorees are nominated by Internet users and selected by a jury that included Wozniak and other leaders in technology-related fields.

"I'm happy to see some older, historically important robots like Shakey and Robby joining the newer ones like Asimo and C3PO," said James Morris, a computer science professor at CMU and the Hall of Fame's founder.

This year's honorees were announced at CMU in conjunction with the press launch of the film "I, Robot." They will join last year's inaugural group — R2-D2, Unimate, HAL 9000 and the Sojourner rover — during an induction ceremony to be conducted Oct. 11 as part of the 25th-anniversary celebration for CMU's Robotics Institute.

What do you think of this year's selections? Which other robots would you select as your personal favorites? Would you vote for NASA's Opportunity rover, or would you want to hold off at least until after its "retirement"? Feel free to let me know. I'll tally up the favorites and publish a selection of your nominations.

June 17, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Sci-tech smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Christian Science Monitor: Space shot for the common man
Slate: The secret balloon bombs of WWII
The Guardian: Getting to the heart of the Ebola virus
BBC: Inventor plans 'invisible walls'

June 16, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Blueberries on Earth and Mars:
Some of the most intriguing Martian features turned up by NASA's Opportunity rover are the BB-sized "blueberries" spotted lying within and upon the bedrock in a region known as Meridiani Planum.

The blueberries, containing an iron-bearing mineral called hematite, served as a key piece of evidence for the existence of liquid water on ancient Mars.

In this week's issue of the journal Nature, geologists at the University of Utah explain how the blueberries on Mars — and on Earth — could have formed underground, when minerals precipitated out from groundwater flowing through layers of rock.

For earthly examples, the researchers point to the "moqui marbles" commonly found in Utah.

"We came up with the 'recipe' for blueberries," geologist Marjorie Chan said in a university news release.

Image: Hematite concretions
Brenda Beitler / University of Utah
Hematite concretions litter the surface of Navajo sandstone at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.

"Before Opportunity landed, we thought there might be hematite concretions on Mars. That was based on our study of hematite-rich regions of southern Utah, where hematite balls are found in national parks and have long been a geological oddity that shows up in many rock shops."

But when it comes to studying geological history, the blueberries aren't just oddities: Chan and her colleagues say that on Earth, bacteria can make the concretions form more quickly. They are looking into whether the Utah blueberries bear evidence of past microbial activity.

The researchers said the blueberry-making process begins when water picks up minerals from iron-rich rock, then percolates through crevices. When the water reaches an area where the chemistry is different, the minerals precipitate out and build up as spherical concretions. In Utah, the concretions are mostly sandstone, cemented together with a dash of hematite. In contrast, the Martian blueberries appear to consist of pure hematite.

Image: Earthly and Martian blueberries
Univ. of Utah / NASA / JPL / Cornell
The image at left shows Utah blueberries that range in size from one-25th of an inch to 2 inches in diameter. The image at right shows Martian blueberries that measure no more than a fifth of an inch in diameter. The scales of the two photos are different.

Hematite is the reason why Opportunity was sent where it was in the first place: Orbital observations showed that Meridiani Planum held an abundance of hematite, which almost always forms in water.

"On Earth, wherever we find water, we find life — in surface water or underground water, hot water or cold water — anyplace there is water on Earth, there are microbes, there is life," said another member of the research team, Bill Parry of the University of Utah. "That's the bottom line: Hematite is linked to life."

June 16, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Space race update:
The latest round of reports on SpaceShipOne's milestone suborbital trip carries through on Tuesday's theme of turning rocket ventures into business ventures: The Economist refers to Scaled Composites' business plan for space tourism, due to be presented to billionaire backer Paul Allen by the end of the year.

Allen tells The Seattle Times that space tourism "is around the corner, but it's not here yet." Someday, he says, tourists could choose between taking a luxury cruise and becoming an astronaut.

One sideline might well have to do with the memorabilia business: Allen is certainly no stranger to the marketing of items associated with his sports teams — the Trail Blazers and the Seahawks — and he's already helped make arrangements for SpaceShipOne souvenirs to be sold on launch day.

In an e-mail, CollectSpace's Rob Pearlman notes that SpaceShipOne has huge potential for carrying collectible items into space:

"The appeal of philatelic material or other collectibles (mini SS1 models, medallions, patches, etc.), not to mention any piece of the actual craft that is expendable/replaceable, will be of interest to space collectors," he writes. "Given that Scaled has been touting the symbolic nature of this flight (as opening space to commercial customers) and that they have had the forethought to create and sell T-shirts, mugs, water bottles and caps at the launch, I would hope that they are already planning for commemorative items to be carried for commercial (or charitable) sale."

SpaceShipOne isn't the only rocket team reporting progress: Armadillo Aerospace's John Carmack provides an impressive report on his team's hover tests, complete with video. Carmack also comments on SpaceShipOne's plan to break the space barrier Monday, saying that his rivals have "good odds of success." One potential concern, he says, could involve whether an extended rocket firing might damage the engine nozzle enough to affect control of the plane.

"This would be a fairly benign failure, with the pilot just shutting off the main engine if he can’t hold the trajectory," Carmack says. "The dangerous part of the test will be the re-entry, with a significantly bigger drop than the previous test."

All this activity has been sparked by the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition, and this week NASA is considering future prize challenges following the X Prize model. Aerospace Daily & Defense Report reports that Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., is suggesting a $100 million "Glenn Prize," which would be awarded in the name of retired senator/astronaut John Glenn to the first private team that puts a human into a spaceflight lasting several orbits. (Tip o' the log to Clark Lindsey's Reusable Launch and Space Transport News.)

So what happens after next week's SpaceShipOne launch attempt? The team's leader, Burt Rutan, apparently will be taking Allen's comments about a luxury cruise to heart, judging by this news release pointed out by Pearlman.

"I can imagine it now," Pearlman writes.

"REPORTER: Burt Rutan, you've just launched the world's first private manned spaceflight! What are you going to do now?

"RUTAN: I'm going to... Alaska!"

Looking longer-term, the biggest obstacle to clear sailing could well be the legislative logjam that is holding up action on spaceflight regulation. Until that logjam is broken, few investors will take a chance on ventures like SpaceShipOne — and time is running out. Behind the scenes, there are indications that the hubbub over SpaceShipOne's launch attempt is creating pressure to get a political deal done. But will that pressure be enough? Keep checking our special report on "The New Space Race" for the next chapter.

June 16, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Bloomsday boomsday:
Exactly a year ago, I was in Dublin for the 99th anniversary of Bloomsday, the date commemorated in the James Joyce masterwork "Ulysses." Today is the centennial, with even more than the usual hoopla. I'll be celebrating this Bloomsday night at home, with a Guinness in hand and "Joyce to the World" in the DVD player. But just because the day is on the wane doesn't mean that the party has to end: This year, Bloomsday lasts all summer, as explained in my travel guide. So if you're tempted to visit Ireland this summer, just say yes.

June 16, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
New Scientist: Sweeping stun guns to target crowds
Science News: Theorems for sale
Discovery.com: Huge Etruscan road discovered
Scientific American: Sitcoms on the brain

June 15, 2004 | 1:30 a.m. ET
Space race economics:
With SpaceShipOne poised to make its first flight across the official boundary of outer space, bottom-line questions are popping up: When will you be able to buy your own trip into space, how much will it cost, and who will sell you the ticket?

The Wall Street Journal estimates that it will take at least five years for commercial space tourism to become a regular offering — although some companies are hoping it'll take less time. SpaceShipOne's designer, Burt Rutan, told The Washington Post that the first flights could be sold for $30,000 to $50,000 — figures that roughly square with the cost estimates made by RocketForge's Michael Mealling.

But will Rutan be making those sales? It's more likely that Rutan and his fellow Ansari X Prize competitors would serve as spacecraft suppliers to the high-frontier equivalent of airlines — let's call them "spacelines." How many spacelines might there be, and how many spacecraft-makers? Sam Dinkin argues in The Space Review that three would be the magic number — not based on a detailed analysis of the X Prize field, but based primarily on the way most markets turn out.

"Markets" is the key word: As Transterrestrial Musings' Rand Simberg points out, The New York Times' story on SpaceShipOne would probably be better-placed in the business pages rather than the science pages.

One company that is virtually certain to serve as a "spaceline" would be Virginia-based Space Adventures, which has already taken more than 100 refundable deposits for spaceflights in the $100,000 range. "I think we are within three years of having licensed suborbital space flight," the company's chief executive officer, Eric Anderson, told the Long Beach Press Telegram. But if trends play out the way Rutan predicts, those would-be space tourists might want to hold out for a discount fare.

Is the suborbital space travel market just over the horizon, or is all this X Prize fuss just a flash in the pan? Let me know what you think.

The fine print: Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use http://cosmiclog.msnbc.com or http://www.cosmiclog.com as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.


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