Liftoff for Space Tourism?

Burt Rutan's vision of private spaceflight rockets beyond the X Prize.

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On June 21, Burt Rutan's innovative manned rocket, SpaceShipOne, touched down in the Mojave Desert after a historic trip into suborbital space. Pilot Mike Melvill flew the rocket to 328,491 feet, just barely punching out of the atmosphere. After touchdown, as the craft was being towed before a crowd of 27,000 spectators, newly crowned astronaut Melvill sat astride his spaceship holding a sign that read "SpaceShipOne, GovernmentZero."

If the flight does indeed mark the beginning of nongovernment-supported spaceflight, what comes next? Assuming Rutan can fix the control glitch that sent Melvill veering dangerously off course, few people doubt that the 62-year-old aviation visionary will take home the Ansari X Prize, a $10-million purse reserved for the first civilian team to launch a three-person craft into suborbital space twice within a two-week period. And though Rutan is playing coy, he and his financial backer, billionaire Paul Allen, have dropped intriguing hints of their post-prize plans.

Since joining forces, the duo has made it clear that their vision goes beyond winning a prize. "We hope to engender a commercial, suborbital business,"Allen said at the June press conference. One NASA study has found that 1.3 percent of Americans would pay $100,000 to ride into space and that many more would fly at $10,000 a ticket. Serving those clients would entail making space launches much cheaper than they are today (Dennis Tito paid $20 million for his trip into orbit)–and that, Rutan explains, is the goal of
SpaceShipOne.

A profitable commercial space plane, however, will need to haul more than just three passengers. During the June press conference, Rutan alluded to a second-generation vehicle that would tote more tourists. "It makes an enormous difference to fly 6 to 10 people," he noted. SpaceShipOne incorporates a scalable design that could balloon in size without necessitating significant changes to its shape. Such a craft would not only be larger but would fly higher than SpaceShipOne, to give more "time to unstrap and float around," Rutan says. Frank Macklin, an engineer at SpaceDev, a company that built components for SpaceShipOne's hybrid rocket, says it's feasible to build a rocket motor large enough to power a suborbital bus.

But Rutan wants to offer customers more than just zero-G floating. "I don't think orbital travel makes sense if you stay in the spacecraft–you have to go to a resort hotel in orbit," he said in June. Reaching the speeds needed for orbit would require building a small, cheap and cramped transfer van rather than a roomy tour bus.

That task won't be as easy as scaling up and strapping on a bigger motor. Paul Czysz, an aerospace engineer at St. Louis University, points out that going higher means going faster, and more speed equals more heat. Orbital space travel is a "big, big, step," he cautions. "It takes 70 times as much energy to get up, and the current design would never make it in one piece." In addition to pricey thermal protection, an orbital van would also need a fully automatic control system for stability in space, and a multistage rocket booster.

Nobody, least of all Rutan, is talking about how much time and money these craft would take to develop. "Sometimes he's brilliant," Czysz says. "But sometimes there are practical things that turn round to bite him."

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