Private space travel has long been dominated by visionary entrepreneurs. Now that the largest aerospace company in
Your ride to space may not come from a scrappy startup after all. In June, the Astrium division of the behemoth European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), after Boeing the largest aerospace company in the world, released its own design for a small tourist spaceship. If it looks familiar, you've been paying attention: The design is basically a copy of the Rocketplane XP.
Two years ago, managers and engineers at EADS Astrium sat down to examine the business case for a suborbital tourist ship. They looked at the main concepts under development by the start-ups, including SpaceShipOne's midair launch from a carrier plane and Armadillo Aerospace's vertical-takeoff-and-landing rocket.
Their studies showed that Rocketplane's jet-and-rocket hybrid made the most sense. "We looked at [the Rocketplane XP] in depth," says Astrium chief technical officer Robert Lainé, "and came very quickly to the conclusion that you can make it fly." (Interestingly, there was no contact during this process between Astrium and Rocketplane. Rocketplane first learned that Astrium was basing its spacecraft directly on the XP when we asked the management team about it. They were flattered.)
Here's the general strategy: Take a business jet, stick a rocket engine in the back, fill most of the interior with rocket fuel, and buckle the passengers into the remaining space up front. The jet takes off from a runway and then fires the rocket at high altitude for a quick run to space. Because the spacecraft takes off and lands at airports, it can fly out of most anywhere—a major advantage for a company that's hoping to sell the craft to a variety of operators.
The more immediate problem is the spaceplane's projected development cost: one billion euros, or $1.3 billion. EADS says it is currently in talks with unnamed owner-operators who would preorder the spacecraft, recouping the investment by selling tourist flights at 200,000 euros ($75,000 more than what Virgin Galactic plans to charge for flights on SpaceShipTwo). Even at that higher price, though, the ship would have to fly 1,250 times before earning back its development expenses, not including the cost to operate each flight. If the financing comes through, EADS plans to start construction next year, with the first paying passengers launching in 2012.
EADS is betting that the suborbital tourist market may just turn out to be big enough to absorb those higher costs. "I think the market will scale up," says analyst Jeff Foust of aerospace consultancy Futron Corporation. "We're talking about a 15,000-passenger-a-year demand by 2020."
And if nothing else, he says, "this is an endorsement of the suborbital space-tourism industry by the conventional aerospace industry." When the big guys jump in, it means we're all that much closer to the age of space tourism.
Kemo D. (a.k.a. no.7) www.beyondgenes.com