Europe's biggest aerospace company, EADS, has concluded that carrying wealthy tourists to 100 kilometers in altitude for several minutes of weightlessness could be a multibillion-dollar industry in 20 years and is seeking co-investors to build a rocket plane it already has designed.
EADS's Astrium division, prime contractor for Ariane 5 rockets and for Europe's contribution to the international space station, said a group of its engineers has spent two years quietly designing a vehicle that looks like a business jet with exceptionally long wings and a rocket engine powered by liquid methane and liquid oxygen. The company unveiled the project here June 13.
Taking off from an as-yet undetermined spaceport using two conventional jet engines, the plane would climb to 12 kilometers in altitude before its rocket engine ignites, powering the vehicle through the atmosphere and into a coast phase whose 100-kilometer apogee would provide passengers with one and one-half minutes of near-zero-gravity experience.
The round trip would last about 90 minutes. The plane would carry four passengers and a pilot, with the passengers each paying about $267,000 for the experience.
Astrium President Francois Auque said one side benefit of the project is to shatter the cliche that established aerospace giants like EADS have lost their imagination and sense of daring.
Auque said Astrium and EADS have investigated the business model in recent months and concluded that their project has sufficient advantages compared to similar efforts under way by start-up companies in the United States to attract as many as 4,500 paying customers per year by 2020.
At $267,000 per ticket, that customer volume would generate gross revenues of some $1.2 billion per year.
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Month in Space: January 2014
Auque said the company has determined that designing and flight-qualifying its proposed space plane would require 1 billion euros in investment. He said Astrium has begun hunting for co-investors and would give itself until the end of this year to round up the needed commitments before abandoning the project.
Astrium Chief Technical Officer Robert Laine, who leads the Astrium team working on the idea, declined to say how much of its own resources the company would be willing to invest alongside its co-investors. "We will make our business plan available to co-investors only," Laine said.
Laine said project officials envision building five initial vehicles, with the planes capable of being refurbished quickly enough to fly once per week.
He said Astrium has surveyed other space-tourism projects, mainly in the United States, and found most of them lacking in engineering or business-model seriousness. "There are those who think you can design a rocket plane in a garage," Laine said. "Suffice it to say that that is not our niche."
Auque said Astrium and its parent company have enough experience in designing Airbus aircraft and rockets to be confident in their ability to design a craft that meets the stringent safety and operating-cost constraints of a space-tourism business. "The big part for us will be finding private finance partners. If we succeed, we will open the door to private financing of space."