WASHINGTON — Aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, whose SpaceShipOne flew to the atmosphere's edge last year, told lawmakers Wednesday that the space tourism business could open cosmic travel to those outside the billionaires' club.
In testimony to a congressional hearing on future markets for commercial space flight, Rutan noted, "The suborbital space tourist industry has been criticized by some as ... just joy rides for billionaires ... just for fun.
"I'm not at all embarrassed that we're opening up a new industry — a likely multibillion-dollar industry — that focused only on fun," Rutan told members of a House panel.
Citing the model of the early days of airplanes, when he said safety increased by a factor of six in its first five years without an accompanying leap in technology, he said safety problems could be overcome as more spaceships take to the skies.
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In terms of development, Rutan said suborbital space tourism could follow the model of the personal computer business, when the first generation of users bought them mainly for games.
"The fact that it expanded as an industry was something that we really didn't know before. ... I believe this is going to happen with space-flying also," he said.
Rutan designed SpaceShipOne, a three-seat rocket plane that flew into space twice in one week last year, winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize meant to spur commercial space travel.
Rutan is working with Virgin Galactic, a unit of Virgin Group, to build five spaceships aimed at attracting commercial customers.
Will Whitehorn, Virgin Galactic's president, told lawmakers his company would aim to be in operation by the end of this decade.
"We believe that within five years we can create a viable business which will be profitable," Whitehorn said. "And that will allow us to bring down the costs of spaceflight to levels which would be affordable across the United States and around the world."
Whitehorn said NASA could help the enterprise by becoming a customer. "The reason they should come to us as a customer is because we can do for them what needs to be done more efficiently than they can do it themselves," he said.
Deposits being accepted
Virgin Galactic has begun taking deposits for the suborbital spaceflights, and Whitehorn said 100 people have signed up for firm reservations. The cost of the space tourism package has been set at $200,000, with a 10 percent deposit required for a reservation, according to Virgin Galactic's Web site.
Virgin Galactic's first craft, dubbed Enterprise, would be an enlarged version of SpaceShipOne. Like SpaceShipOne, the rocket plane would be carried up for an in-flight launch from a carrier airplane, which has been named Eve.
Rutan said U.S. export controls were interfering with technical exchanges between his California-based company, Scaled Composites, and British-based Virgin Galactic, according to an account of the hearing on the RLV News Web log — but so far, the companies were able to work around the difficulties.
Both witnesses got gentle questioning from the panel, most of whom are space boosters and admirers of Rutan's long experience in aviation.
This report includes information from Reuters and MSNBC's Alan Boyle.