Sydney - Jan 09, 2004
When Dennis Tito became the world's first space tourist in 2001, he attracted a blaze of media attention and controversy. But the man who sent him there was arguably more embroiled in the drama of trailblazing this new industry than his first paying client. Eric Anderson is the President and CEO of Space Adventures, a US-based firm that has managed to launch two tourists into space, and plans to launch more in the future. A former employee of NASA, he recently spoke with SpaceDaily correspondent Dr Morris Jones about upcoming events in space tourism.
How did Space Adventures start?
The company was co-founded by three of us. There was also Mike McDowell, an Australian, who has founded several adventure travel companies and Gloria Bohan, the president of Omega World Travel, a large US travel agency. We also had astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and Norm Thagard associated with the founding. We all reached the conclusion that thousands of people would like to fly in space, or even take part in space tourism on Earth-based locations. But there was no outlet for such activities. We've gone on to fly two tourists to the International Space Station, and now it's a job for us to keep the ball growing as it rolls down the hill.
Space Adventures is best known for sending tourists to ISS. How did this begin?
In 1999, we signed a research contract with RSC Energia for them to perform a study on the possibility of sending tourists to the International Space Station. Back then, no elements of ISS had even been launched. We paid a significant fee for the research, and they produced a 200-page report on how it could be done and what kinds of people would be suitable. That formed the basis of our marketing, and the initial presentation we made to Dennis Tito, who was the first tourist in space.
The lead-up to Dennis Tito's flight was controversial. Did you expect so many objections to the mission?
No, but I knew there would be some controversy. That doesn't mean it should have been controversial, but it didn't surprise me to see some, because the establishment always turns slowly. But it spun out of control, and NASA didn't do a good job with its own PR. I think that most people in America, and around the world, were supportive of Mr Tito's flight. It could have been cast as just as rich guy wasting his money, but it wasn't seen like that. I feared, and my public relations people advised me, that it was possible for the media and public opinion to see it that way. Instead, we saw a general perception that Dennis Tito's flight was the first step for a future program that they could sign up for in the future. The first computers and mobile phones were very expensive, but they started trends and the price came down. A similar perception applies to space tourism.
Did it take a lot of work to cultivate that perception?
Yes, it was mostly a case of making sure people had the facts. We needed to tell people that he was well-trained, healthy and that he wouldn't break anything on the space station.
What did NASA fear?
They said that they feared that Dennis Tito was not prepared for the mission and posed a danger to himself and the rest of the crew. That was categorically false. He was as well trained, if not better trained, than some of the guest scientists that NASA themselves have flown on the shuttle. NASA has flown senators. Spaceflight has been a political tool for a long time. There are plenty of people who have not been as well trained as Mr Tito before his flight.
I think the real issue was just ego. I think that Mr (Dan) Goldin (NASA Administrator during Tito's flight) had a problem with the idea. Mr Goldin, and perhaps some of the leadership at the Johnson Space Centre, had a problem with an outsider joining their Spaceflight Country Club.
The flight of Mark Shuttleworth seemed to run more smoothly. Why?
After NASA really blew it with Dennis Tito's flight, there was a lot of political pressure to tell them to get their act together. Mr Tito testified at a Congressional hearing, along with people from NASA, and they were openly questioned about space tourism. That helped to bring about a policy shift. We also had a new NASA Administrator (Sean O'Keefe), and it really changed things around.
Soyuz is the only vehicle that can carry crew to the ISS. Some people think space tourism should be delayed until the Shuttle is operational again. What do you think?
Philosophically, there may be some truth to that. But practically speaking, it's more important now than it was before. The Russians are now supporting the space station single-handedly without external funding from other partner countries. So they need to be able to sell extra seats.
The missions are also only about eight days, and there's not a lot of science that you can do on a short flight. The expedition crews will obviously be professional astronauts and cosmonauts, but the tourist flights provide valuable revenue to support all the Soyuz and Progress launches.
The only orbital vehicle you have used is Soyuz. Do you have plans to use other orbital spacecraft?
Projecting several years into the future, we would look at the Chinese Shenzhou vehicle once it has proven its reliability. Any future US vehicles would also be considered. I think it is too dangerous to fly tourists on the current Space Shuttle. Professional astronauts can take any risks they like. When there's an alternative to Soyuz that has an escape system at every phase of the launch, it's a lot simpler.
Have you had any discussions with the Chinese about Shenzhou?
We have congratulated them on their successful launch. We have begun to make contact at certain levels, and people from Space Adventures have visited China in the past. But it's a long-term prospect. I don't think there will be commercial passengers on Shenzhou for several years.
You are also working on sub-orbital missions. What is Space Adventures doing?
We have several vehicles, around half a dozen, some of which are confidential, some of which are not. We are working to develop training programs, licensing, and locations for launches. It's heating up. I think that you will see more than just Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne being tested in 2004. I can't discuss a lot of these developments, but the team behind the Russian Cosmopolis sub-orbital vehicle has made a lot of progress.
What is your level of involvement with Burt Rutan at Scaled Composites?
We know Burt quite well. He's an old friend of ours. He is also the primary contractor for several of our companies in terms of construction of airframes and system integration.
Can we expect tourists on SpaceShipOne?
SpaceShipOne is a test vehicle. It will probably never carry tourists. It demonstrates that the company that built it (Scaled Composites) can build other vehicles.
How soon before sub-orbital tourism starts?
I think two to three years. There should be at least one licensed tourist vehicle operating by late 2006.
How much will it cost?
The fare will be $98,000 per person. We know that price is a sensitive point in the market, so we have instructed our developers to build vehicles that can operate within that price range.
How many people have expressed interest in flying on the next orbital missions?
A lot have expressed interest in flying. When you cut the list down to those who can pay for it, and the numbers who can set aside the time to train for it, you could get roughly a dozen serious candidates. We have four seats currently booked on Soyuz, and we have sold two of them.
The proposed SA-1 mission, which would carry two tourists with a cosmonaut pilot, would fly as an addition to the existing Soyuz manifest to the ISS. But we will use our seats in the combination that best suits Rosaviakosmos. Logistically, we have not placed these seats on specific missions. They could also be on Soyuz taxi missions. No exact time for the SA-1 mission has been fixed yet.
When do you need to finalise crews for missions?
Typically six months before the flight date. We could be finalising the next tourist flight in the first quarter of 2004.
What is your view on the proposed Honeymoon in Space mission that Rosaviakosmos promoted in late 2003?
I think it's a great idea. We have actually had one couple that was interested in flying together.
Is the US Government doing enough to promote space tourism?
Truthfully, no. I'm not sure that it's NASA's job to do this, but the US Government is larger than NASA. I think the Federal Aviation Administration needs to do more to encourage human spaceflight. I think there are legislative changed such as tax incentives that could be introduced. Commercial human spaceflight is important to the future of the USA and other countries, and space tourism is the catalyst for this. It's the only market out there today that can provide for the infrastructure and re-investment to build re-useable launch vehicles that we need to build. But I'm not pointing the finger at NASA, because space tourism is not their job. They should be going to Mars and exploring the moon, which are things that only NASA can do. Let's let private companies do everything else.
How would you promote the attractions of a holiday in space?
Uniqueness, both historically and in terms of experience. There is no other way to see the Earth like you can from space, and no other way to travel three million miles in a week. There is no other way to experience weightlessness for an extended period, and the environment you're in allows you to do educational, scientific and media projects.
There's also the pride, knowing that you're contributing to the future of space exploration.
So it's still about pioneering?
Sure. Anyone who flies in space in the next two or three years is going to be one of the first five hundred people to ever fly in space. It's like being on the Mayflower.
Morris Jones is a freelance space writer based in Sydney, Australia. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com.
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Space Adventures Signs Two For Soyuz Taxi With Option On Two More Seats
Arlington - Dec 18, 2003
On the centennial anniversary of flight, Space Adventures, Ltd. Announced today that the company has secured two additional seats on the Soyuz TMA spacecraft to transport tourists to the International Space Station (ISS). The new agreement provides Space Adventures with the sole rights to transport the next four private space explorers between 2004 and 2007.
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