Space Tourism Blasts Off

Back to Contents of Issue: December 2001

The "last frontier" is on its way to becoming just another sightseeing destination, complete with Japanese tours.

by Kim Binsted

It's a simple case of proof by existence: US businessman Dennis Tito paid $20 million to go to the International Space Station; therefore, space tourism is real. Now everyone's trying to figure out if it can make money. Surprisingly, given the historical dominance of the US and Russia, a lot of the thrust is coming from Japan. Kinki Nippon Tourism, Japan's second largest travel agency, is one of the first major agencies to cater to wannabe-astronauts and is using space to differentiate itself from Japan Travel Bureau, the Japanese market leader. "Space tourism is one of the fields JTB is not doing," says Joe Shiraishi, the manager in charge of promoting extraterrestrial adventures.

As a first step, Kinki Nippon has added a space tourism group to its Club Tourism program, a network of special interest travel clubs that has over 5 million members. However, Club Space faces special challenges. "If it's a dance club or Canada club, club members have already been to Canada or gone dancing, so they can usually talk about their interest. But space tourism is just a dream," says Shiraishi.

To compensate for the lack of "been there, done that" chit-chat, Club Space will be offering space-themed lectures and get-togethers, as well as terrestrial tours to places like the Kennedy Space Center. Kinki Nippon also plans to be a reseller for Space Adventures, the US-based company that organized Tito's visit to the Space Station. Space Adventures already offers zero-gravity flights and astronaut training programs, and is likely to be one of the first to put paying passengers on sub-orbital jaunts into space. Although Kinki Nippon is starting small, Shiraishi sees great promise in the sector. "Now, we have domestic versus overseas travel; by the end of the century, it will be terrestrial versus space."

Mitsubishi is another Japanese company working with a foreign partner: LunaCorp, an American company trying to put the "space" back into "cyberspace." It plans to send a robot to the moon in 2003 or 2004 in the hopes of finding ice at the lunar poles. But the robot will not be alone on its mission -- folks back home can ride along, via "telepresence portals" back on Earth. "What we're trying to do is to give millions of people the ability to explore the moon," says David Gump, president of LunaCorp. A few lucky punters will even be allowed to take control of the robot and drive it over the lunar surface in real time.

Gump believes that the experience will be more appealing than even the most skillfully rendered, action-packed video game: "It's more satisfying to explore a real planetary body than something a programmer thought up." The virtual lunar tour is just one of LunaCorp's plans to commercialize space: It has already sent several promotional payloads to the Space Station, including a Father's Day present for one of the astronauts, sponsored by Radio Shack.

But one of the most ambitious space tourism plans is entirely home-grown. The Kankoh Maru is a single-stage-to-orbit passenger vehicle researched, designed, and promoted by the Japanese Rocket Society (JRS), a group of space industry volunteers who work on the project after hours. By using only one stage, rather than the two or three stages used by current launch vehicles, the Kankoh Maru saves on launch costs and turnaround time. "The full vehicle is launched, goes to orbit, and comes back again, and is used again and again, as is done in aircraft use," says Dr. Yoshifumi Inatani, a researcher at Japan's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science. In contrast to a shuttle, which flies only four or five times per year, the Kankoh Maru would be able to fly once per day. This speedy turnaround is crucial to the business plan, says Inatani. "Look at airplanes. On the ground, they do not produce money; in the air, they produce money. That's the business way of thinking."

High flight volume only makes sense if there is demand. Dr. Patrick Collins, an economist, did an extensive market study while a researcher at Japan's National Space Development Agency (NASDA). "The idea is incredibly popular," he says. "Most people, including even those in their 60s and 70s, say they'd like to go to space."

According to his research, JPY2 million per ticket is the magic price point. "We estimated that at around the price of $20,000, the market goes pretty well and everyone would go," Collins says. The JRS believes it can hit that target and make an acceptable return, based on an estimated development cost of $12 billion over 10 years. "That figure is quite a lot of money, but it's about the same as developing a big new airplane," says Collins. "And then they'd build eight a year, so that the business would grow by about 100,000 passengers a year."

David Todd, space analyst at Airclaims, a British aviation and aerospace consultancy, doubts that the JRS can get ticket prices that low. "I reckon at today's prices that the cheapest a person will be able to fly to orbit will be about $400,000." Even so, he says, "There would definitely be a market for this. There are thousands of millionaires in the world."

Japanese travelers may well line up to go, but only when the last frontier becomes a proper tourist destination. "Japanese travelers are accustomed to sophisticated and luxurious service and facilities," says Shiraishi. "On the other hand, smaller living spaces are OK." In contrast to the US, the Japanese market doesn't see space as the prerogative of heroes with "the right stuff." "The image is much more that it's just another place you can go," says Collins.

There's a lot of work to be done before space travel can become so down-to-earth. Darcy Beamer-Downie, in-house counsel at Airclaims, says, "At the moment, the reliability of rockets is not even close to that of aircraft, and the regulators, insurers, banks, et cetera, are not keen on asking people to sit on controlled explosions."

The JRS acknowledges this and plans to do full airplane-style flight testing, with several vehicles and thousands of flights, before letting a single paying passenger set foot on board. Both the US Federal Aviation Authority and the Japanese Aeronautics Association are working on regulatory and safety standards for space tourism, and the FAA is even considering extending air traffic control to orbit.

So, should investors be giving space tourism a boost? Todd is skeptical: "A lot of investors rushed to finance many duff reusable rocket systems, which have failed to get anywhere near development."

On the other hand, the launch vehicle itself is not the only potential investment target. "You have companies making the vehicles," says Collins, "but you also have companies operating the vehicles, you have companies selling the tickets in the travel industry sector, then you have maintenance companies, marketing companies, finance, insurance, and all the rest."

One barrier for venture companies seeking funding is opposition from publicly funded space agencies. "Any investor who looks at any company's scheme, they say, 'Well, that looks interesting, but we'll just get another opinion,'" Collins points out. "So, they always go to a space agency, and the space agencies all go, 'No, that's rubbish -- if space tourism were so easy we'd be doing it now.'" Since Tito's historic flight, however, there are some signs that the agencies are coming around to the idea. America's NASA and Rosaviacosmos, the Russian space agency, are banging out a set of guidelines for future privately funded visits to the space station.

It's possible to debate the feasibility of space tourism, but it's hard to doubt the appeal. As Collins says, "Looking down on the Earth, you see the lightning storms ripple across Africa, the oil fields burning off the gas in the Middle East, the city lights, and the fishing fleets. I just don't think people are going to tire of that." And for those not inspired by the view, he adds, "There is also zero gravity, which is just hilarious."

Shiraishi is not so enthusiastic about zero gravity: "I'd like to look down on the blue Earth -- but I can't even take a roller coaster!" It will be interesting to see if investors can stomach the ride. @

Dr. Kim Binsted is an artificial intelligence researcher and entrepreneur, and is first in line for the Mars Express.

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