Billionaires Blasting Off


By Otis Port "Fly me to the moon," crooned Frank Sinatra -- a tune that Space Adventures CEO Eric Anderson hopes to be humming on his way to the bank in three or four years. Anderson's Arlington (Va.) company on Aug. 10 unveiled an audacious plan to establish around-the-moon treks as the ultimate status symbol for the filthy rich.

A ride will cost a cool $100 million, five times the $20 million price that Space Adventures charges for trips to the International Space Station. Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth hopped up to the Space Station in 2001 and 2002, respectively. The third space tourist, entrepreneur Gregory Olsen, is slated to blast off on Oct. 1.

DOUGH AND DARING. Still, lunar tickets could be considered a bargain in one sense. The moon is roughly 1,000 times more distant than the space station, which floats 230 miles up. On a straight-line basis, a moon jaunt costs only $200 per mile, vs. almost $40,000 to the Space Station.

Space Adventures unwrapped its lunar ambitions at a New York press conference on Aug. 10. Its Russian partners, the Federal Space Agency and rocket designer Energia, joined the company in predicting that moon flights could begin between 2008 and 2010. Anderson said market research had turned up 1,000 well-heeled potential customers. Olsen came to the meeting, too, and said he would mull a moon tour after his excursion to the Space Station: "Who wouldn't want to go to the moon?"

Wanting to go isn't the real issue, though. The question is: Will anyone wealthy enough to afford $100 million be willing to risk his or her life by taking the very first spin around the moon in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft? After all, Russia has never sent cosmonauts to the moon. Soyuz was originally designed for lunar missions -- and has performed yeoman duties in ferrying supplies and personnel to the space station -- but the USSR scrapped its plans for manned moon flights after America's Apollo 8 astronauts circled our neighbor in space in 1968.

EXCITEMENT OVER SMALL OUTFITS. "So I will be pleasantly surprised if they find any takers at $100 million," says James W. Benson, founder and CEO of SpaceDev Inc. His Poway (Calif.) company has its own vision for space tourism -- a six-passenger ship called Dream Chaser that Benson claims would slash ticket prices drastically. The Dream Chaser design was recently "flown" in NASA's space-shuttle simulator, and Benson says it performed flawlessly. "We think we could build it for $150 million," he adds. "But we don't have the funding."

Benson and many other space-tourism hopefuls had been encouraged by NASA's initial reaction to the success of the $10 million Ansari X Prize in stimulating private investments in space flight. Two dozen companies and teams spent an estimated $100 million or more vying for the prize.

It was won last October by SpaceShipOne, designed and built by aviation legend Burt Rutan and his cohorts at Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif. SpaceShipOne's development was funded with $25 million from billionaire Paul G. Allen. A novel rocket engine from Benson's SpaceDev powered the plane.

For a while, some senior NASA managers were eager to discuss how small, innovative companies might contribute to the Bush Administration's plans to return to the moon and then head out to Mars. The main focus was on new ideas for the next-generation space plane that will replace the Space Shuttle, which is scheduled to retire in 2010.

ORBITAL INNS. NASA's welcome mat didn't stay out long, however. Michael Griffin took over as NASA's new chief in May, and the agency announced in June that the job of designing the shuttle's successor would be decided by a competition between Boeing (BA) and Lockheed Martin (LMT).

To many space entrepreneurs, that seemed almost a rebuke of Rutan's derisive remarks last October about the space establishment. After winning the X Prize, he said Boeing and Lockheed were probably "looking at each other right now and thinking: We're screwed!"

But the dreams of space entrepreneurs are hardly dead. Not only are many former X Prize contenders continuing to develop their planes, but several newcomers also are expected to enter the race for space. The lure is a new round of prizes. One is the $50 million America's Space Prize being offered by Bigelow Aerospace in North Las Vegas. Its aim is to spur development of a space plane that can bring tourists to the orbiting hotels that Bigelow plans to launch around 2010.

DISPLAY OF PROWESS. Also, X Prize Foundation Chairman Peter H. Diamandis is lining up prize money for a series of contests to be staged by the X Prize Cup. This new effort will feature rewards for such feats as attaining the highest altitude and carrying the most passengers.

The first X Prize Cup event will be held Oct. 6 to 9 at New Mexico's Las Cruces International Airport. The X Prize Cup is a partnership between the X Prize Foundation and the state of New Mexico, which has allocated $9 million to build the Southwest Regional Spaceport in Upham, near Las Cruces.

The October X Prize Cup event will feature demonstration flights of space planes developed by Armadillo Aerospace in Mesquite, Tex., and Xcor Aerospace in Mojave. The WildFire mkVI spacecraft from Toronto's da Vinci Project and Golden Palace.com will be on display, and Britain's Starchaser Industries will exhibit its Thunderstar design.

KEEPING THE FAITH. A full-size replica of SpaceShipOne will be on view as well, but not the nine-passenger upgrade that Rutan is designing for Virgin Galactic, the space-tourism venture of Virgin Atlantic Airways founder Richard Branson. The startup had expected to commence suborbital flights to the edge of space in 2007, but Virgin Galactic now says '08 or '09 is more likely.

Space Adventures isn't eligible for the new space-flight prizes because the rules don't allow participation by government agencies. And even if its $100 million tickets prove too exorbitant for the superrich, SpaceDev's Benson says: "You've got to give them credit. All the publicity they've gotten for their moon tours is helping keep the dream of private space flight alive."

Like Rutan, Branson, and the other space entrepreneurs, Benson remains convinced that space tourism will be a viable business in the not-too-distant future. By 2015 or 2020, ticket prices could even be affordable to people who regularly splurge on first-class airline seats. Port is a senior writer with BusinessWeek in New York


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