The trajectory of the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. 

Tourism'sspace race


July 05, 2017

About 30 miles from Truth or Consequences, the funky, hot springs mecca in southern New Mexico, Virgin Galactic has -- finally, some might say -- begun finishing its hangar and top secret, paying-astronauts-only lounge at the $250 million Spaceport America that New Mexico built nearly a decade ago to house Richard Branson's space tourism venture.

To the west, in Tucson, Ariz., a company called World View Enterprises has opened its own spaceport and a helium balloon manufacturing facility for its stratospheric balloon operations, which include plans to float tourists to the edge of space for gentle, two-hour rides that will enable them to view the curvature of the Earth while sipping cocktails in comfortable, spacious cabins.

Jeff Bezos, at the West Texas launch facility before the Blue Origin'S maiden voyage.
Jeff Bezos, at the West Texas launch facility before the Blue Origin'S maiden voyage.

To the east, in the West Texas desert, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin is developing its own spacecraft with the intention of offering ordinary, albeit well-heeled, citizens the opportunity to rocket into space.

And in California, Elon Musk's SpaceX recently announced plans to take two high-paying customers (whom he has yet to identify) on a flight around the moon within two years. He also published a paper last month outlining plans to take people to Mars as early as 2030.

From Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates to Oklahoma, spaceports are being built and old regional airports converted to support the possibility of growing space tourism and commercial space businesses, which, in addition to joyrides for the rich and adventurous, hold long-term prospects of dramatically slashing commercial air travel and cargo transportation times and creating a new category for travel and tourism in space-based resorts.

While the Great Recession, a fatal accident and a few doses of plain old reality dramatically slowed the initial projections by Branson, Musk and others of getting civilians into space by 2011, things are quietly heating up. Players across the commercial space industry are voicing cautious optimism that these much-delayed dreams are inching toward reality.

"I think we are getting much, much closer," said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, predicting passengers will be flying "within two years."

"Unfortunately, about 10 or 11 years ago .... everyone thought it was just imminent. ... It has taken a lot longer to get off the ground," he said. "On the positive side, the companies involved want to do it right. They know if they have any kind of mishap they will jeopardize the entire business."

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson plans to be on the company’s first commercial flight.
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson plans to be on the company’s first commercial flight.

Indeed, Branson, the flamboyant and eternally optimistic founder of Virgin Galactic, dramatically tempered his seemingly endless projections of "next year" for beginning Virgin Galactic's $250,000-per-person flights into space after the company's SpaceShip Two broke apart on a test flight over the Mojave Desert in 2014, killing one of its two pilots.

Although the company has stopped issuing predictions for when its first paying passenger will be launched, it has begun testing its replacement craft in the Mojave Desert. And Branson, who plans to be on the first flight, told the Telegraph newspaper in London in April that he'd "be very disappointed if we're not into space with a test flight by the end of the year and I'm not into space myself next year and the program isn't well underway by the end of next year."

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A growing number of products


More than 700 people have signed up for Virgin Galactic's flights, including the head of the luxury travel consortium Virtuoso, which has trained and accredited travel professionals as "space agents." Virtuoso chairman and CEO Matthew Upchurch is considered a "founder" passenger and will be one of the first 84 people to go up.

When operational, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo will be hoisted by the carrier aircraft White Knight Two to about 50,000 feet, where it will fire its rocket motor and soar more than 62 miles above the Earth. It will coast for a few minutes, offering passengers great views and the chance to experience weightlessness for several minutes before coming back to Earth.

Members of the Blue Origin team recover the crew capsule after its fifth successful flight and soft landing in October.
Members of the Blue Origin team recover the crew capsule after its fifth successful flight and soft landing in October.

Blue Origin will offer the more traditional, NASA-style rocket launches of a space capsule with huge windows that will enable its civilian passengers to float weightless while enjoying the views. That capsule will land, with the help of parachutes, just a few miles from the launch pad at its spaceport in Van Horn, Texas. The company, which like much of the industry is very secretive about its operations, has not said how much it will charge passengers.

SpaceX, which flies cargo supply missions for the International Space Station, issued a statement in February that said it had "been approached to fly two private citizens on a trip around the moon late next year."

That mission will take place on an updated version of SpaceX's free-flying Dragon spacecraft, which in 2012 became the first commercial spacecraft to deliver cargo to the space station and safely return cargo to Earth. The company said the first manned test flights are expected next year.

On the morning of Feb. 19, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, carrying its Dragon spacecraft, lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. It was the first launch from 39A since July 8, 2011, when Atlantis lifted off for the final flight of the space shuttle program. Manned test flights of the Dragon are expected next year.
On the morning of Feb. 19, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, carrying its Dragon spacecraft, lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. It was the first launch from 39A since July 8, 2011, when Atlantis lifted off for the final flight of the space shuttle program. Manned test flights of the Dragon are expected next year.

Liftoff will be from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, using the same launch pad used by the Apollo program for its lunar missions. "This presents an opportunity for humans to return to deep space for the first time in 45 years, and they will travel faster and farther into the solar system than any before them," the company said in its announcement.

SpaceX has said its missions are all building blocks toward an ultimate goal of transporting humans to Mars.

Floating above the world


While those companies are all vying to be the first to offer rocket-powered trips to space, World View is working on a gentler, longer and less expensive product for viewing the Earth: a capsule floating from a helium balloon at an altitude of more than 100,000 feet.

Founder and chief technology officer Taber MacCallum said that he and his wife, CEO Jane Poynter, came up with the idea as they studied what was going on in the commercial and space tourism fields in 2011.
"We thought, wouldn't it be cool if instead of a really short rocket ride you could not go so high and do a balloon experience?" he said. "It seemed like it would be great to go up for a few hours with Champagne and your best friend."

The balloons are similar to those that have been used by the weather services for years. The company, which built its own spaceport and balloon manufacturing facility near the Tucson Airport, did an official kickoff in 2014 by taking Alan Eustace, a Google executive, nearly to the top of the stratosphere for a record-setting parachute dive from 136,000 feet. That beat the record set a few years earlier by Felix Baumgartner in a jump over Roswell, N.M.

World View opened its global headquarters Feb. 23 in Tucson, Ariz., to manufacture and assemble its balloons and capsules. It also contains a spaceport.
World View opened its global headquarters Feb. 23 in Tucson, Ariz., to manufacture and assemble its balloons and capsules. It also contains a spaceport.

World View is giving no official estimate for the timing of its first launch, in part, MacCallum said, because it got sidetracked by an unexpected demand by companies and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to fly commercial payloads into the stratosphere.

Last week, World View launched its first test of a multiday mission by one of the satellite balloons it calls Stratollites in a partnership with KFC. The live broadcast of the launch on Facebook Thursday built on a marketing campaign by KFC that includes a television commercial with Colonel Sanders (played by an actor) improvising on President John F. Kennedy's 1962 "We choose to go to the moon" speech. KFC approached World View, the companies said, for KFC's U.S. product launch of a tangy fried chicken sandwich.

While World View's original mission was to launch balloons only for passenger flights, MacCallum said, the company is gaining experience rather than losing ground on the tourism front.

It is currently taking reservations for the $75,000-per-person trips, which will carry six people on a four-and-a-half-hour flight that includes about two hours of simply floating above the Earth in a luxurious capsule that will be roomy enough for the passengers to walk around and will include a bar.

MacCallum was hesitant to offer a target date for the company's first human-carrying balloon flight. When pressed, he said only that it would probably be "no less than two years."

Far-ranging impact on travel


Despite the short-term delays, the long-term implications for the projects under development now could have a huge impact on commercial air travel and space-related tourism offerings.

As the flights become more mainstream, prices (like those associated with any new technology) are expected to drop significantly, and the carriers are expected to expand operations to multiple sites.

For example, Branson played a key role in getting Abu Dhabi to begin building a spaceport, in part because he has said he hopes that Virgin Galactic will ultimately use its spaceships for point-to-point travel that could significantly cut flight times for long-haul trips like Emirates' 17-hour flights from Los Angeles to Dubai.

Musk, in his recent article about Mars, talked about using his rockets for cargo shipments, estimating that by using floating launch pads off the coasts of major cities, he could get shipments anywhere in the world in under an hour.

A rendering of World View Enterprises’ balloon, expected to take customers in a capsule more than 100,000 feet above the Earth.
A rendering of World View Enterprises’ balloon, expected to take customers in a capsule more than 100,000 feet above the Earth.

MacCallum said World View's long-term goal is to offer balloon flights multiple times a day from multiple cities.

And Stallmer of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation said companies are already working on long-range plans to create habitats and an attachment to the International Space Station that will make space a new destination.

"I don't see this in the immediate near term, but the near term keeps getting closer," Stallmer said. "That's kind of like the next big thing on the tourism front."

'Space is going to happen'


Here in New Mexico, Spaceport America CEO Daniel Hicks remains optimistic that his massive but still largely empty facility will become a major center for both the space tourism and commercial space industries.

Rising from the floor of the Jornada del Muerto desert basin, adjacent to the White Sands Missile Range to the east and one of billionaire conservationist Ted Turner's sprawling ranches to the north, the 18,000-acre facility is a poster child of sorts for the starts and stops that have plagued the space tourism and commercial space industries.

Developed with much fanfare and with what turned out to be overly aggressive timetables and overly eager predictions, the facility -- the world's first so-called "purpose-built" spaceport -- was the brainchild of Branson and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

Now used by a few commercial space launch companies for testing, it remains largely deserted. A full-size replica of SpaceShipTwo sits in Virgin Galactic's hangar. But its visitors center, with interactive displays on space, the history of the area, even a G-force simulator, is temporarily closed to guests.

At its operations center, firefighters man the facility 24/7 but are on alert only occasionally when one of the tenants conducts a test launch or arrives or departs from the remote runways via private planes or helicopters. They have set up a weightlifting area just outside the garage that houses its space-age firefighting vehicles.

But now, a full six years after Branson had first hoped to fly into space from here, Hicks said he expects Virgin Galactic to move its operations to Spaceport America from the Mojave by the end of the year. Branson has said the same, assuming its new SpaceShipTwo advances from its current gliding tests to actual space flight tests.

The White Knight Two aircraft, which will lift SpaceShip Two 50,000 feet into the air for its launch, at its hangar at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
The White Knight Two aircraft, which will lift SpaceShip Two 50,000 feet into the air for its launch, at its hangar at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Company officials declined requests for interviews, but Hicks said, and Virgin Galactic confirmed, that workers are finishing the company's space at the facility, including a private lounge that will be accessible and seen only by those who pay $250,000 for a ride into space and a separate viewing lounge for their families.

Hicks, who came to Spaceport America late last year following the retirement of his predecessor, Christine Anderson, said he remains optimistic about attracting not only more commercial operators like Boeing and SpaceX but also space tourism ventures such as Blue Origin and World View when they begin to expand their human flights.

Despite the slow start and the resulting frustration on the part of state lawmakers and taxpayers, Hicks said Spaceport America has several key attributes that he thinks guarantee its success: Its mile-high elevation makes it easier for many launches; it is the only place in the country besides the White House where the air space is controlled by the Department of Defense rather than the FAA, meaning commercial flights are not allowed over the area unless the space is not being used by the spaceport or White Sands; and a state that boasts more than 300 days a year of sunshine offers almost always perfect launch conditions.

Yes, he allowed, Richardson and Branson might have been overly ambitious in their promises. But he insisted that they did not overcommit.

"Space is going to happen," Hicks said.