Reporting once again from the 2008 International Space Development Conference, PM columnist and Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds analyzes the influx of money into suborbital flight—and what that could mean for your vacation to the moon.
As Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo (left) and XCOR's Lynx jet (top right) race to suborbital space, early billionaire tourists like Greg Olson (bottom right) see lower-cost trips to the moon in the not-so-distant future. (Photographs Courtesy of Virgin Galactic, XCOR and Nancy Ostertag/NSS)
WASHINGTON — After spending the weekend here with the elite minds of research and exploration for the next generation in space, I'm confident that several frontiers are making steady progress. Beyond China and the globalization of government space agencies, there's movement on everything from asteroid defense (which is about more than just 99942 Apophis) to the Google Lunar X Prize (which now has four more teams competing) and space-based solar power (which we'll see some action on, bringing tremendous energy-independence benefits).
But just like last year, the biggest driver of excitement at the National Space Society's 27th International Space Development Conference was the booming growth in suborbital tourism. For the companies building spacecraft, there's money to spare. For you and me? There's actually money to save in getting up there some day.
Sure, the crowd of space activists here likes pretty much everything about space. But most people are space activists because they want to go themselves. (In fact, I want to GO! is a popular t-shirt slogan.) And the space tourism industry offers the prospect not only of jump-starting commercial space efforts in general, but of letting people fly into space at a price that many can actually afford.
With the race between Virgin Galactic and XCOR in full throttle to get the first spacecraft ready for suborbital vacations, the message at the tourism panels here was that the entire industry is moving fast, with plenty of cash—and a variety of business plans from the smaller players. Space tourism has attracted over $1.2 billion in investment, mostly from individual "angel investors," of which only about 25 percent has been spent. Revenues last year were $268 million, up from $175 million the year before.
And even though most of the competitors haven't flown yet, the space tourism market is a proven phenomenon, with several people having paid top dollar already to fly on the Russian Soyuz to the International Space Station (and more to come). Two of them, Anousheh Ansari and Greg Olson, spoke about their $20 million tickets to space and made clear that they thought it was money well spent. Asked if they'd spend $100 million for a trip to the moon, both said yes, though Olson added, "I'd have to sell another company first."
Will one or both of them manage the trip? Bring it on, I say. As with the first folks who shelled out big bucks for laptop computers and HDTVs, these early adopters are developing a market that will one day make access to space affordable for lots more of us. Which is great, because I want to go myself, and I'm afraid I don't have a hundred million to spare!