SpaceX engineers may soon fulfill the ideas of many cosmic dreamers as the revolutionary space technology company races to develop a market for space tourism that would allow private citizens to rent a rocket for a trip to the stars. Boeing and Sierra Nevada are also in contention to design reusable space vehicles that could rake in profits from private business when not in use shuttling NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) twice a year. NASA’s goal is to partner with private companies using government subsidies to establish a viable commercial space industry that taxis private citizens via spacecraft to conduct business in the final frontier.
SpaceX drew attention in 2012 when it became the first private organization to tote supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) after NASA discontinued its shuttle program in 2011. Now, according to company founder Elon Musk, they have set their sights on ushering the human race into a new era where interplanetary travels are no longer relegated to science fiction, but are a simple fact of life. The vision is to develop a line of space vehicles that space travelers can rent for a galactic excursion. Commercial Spaceflight Federation president Michael Lopez-Alegria envisions a robust tourism market within the realm of possibility and predicts that the list of possible destinations will expand beyond just giving the ISS astronauts a ride to work, as the infrastructure for space-based businesses such as commercial space stations, hotels and laboratories become an established reality rather than just a dream.
NASA and a few contractors have virtually dominated the space industry for years, so the move to take competing proposals to develop an interstellar rent-a-rocket tourism industry gives SpaceX and other private technology companies the chance to enter a new space race and break the monopoly. The new voices bring fresh ideas to the table for cutting costs and increasing the profit from the development of a tourism market in space. Sierra Nevada’s compact Dream Chaser space plane sports a race-car-like design, can fly manned or unmanned, lands on any runway that can handle a 737 and is good for at least 30 trips. SpaceX’s reusable Dragon V2 can carry cargo and as many as seven passengers. Like the Dream Chaser it can land on dry land rather than splashing down in the ocean and does not use parachutes. Boeing’s CST-100 rocket also holds seven crew members but can also carry a combination of passengers and cargo.
SpaceX recognizes that affordable space travel is key in their plans to establish lunar and Martian colonies and capitalize on the tourism market surrounding them. Reusable spacecraft are a crucial piece of keeping the cost down, regardless of which company wins the current NASA contract bid. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program spokesperson, Stephanie Martin sees hope for all the designs on the table, acknowledging the possibility that NASA may choose multiple designs to give them flexible options in choosing different vehicles for different purposes in future missions.
Although the first priority is serving NASA’s astronauts, Garrett Reisman, SpaceX’s commercial crew project manager, explains that outside of their contract duties with NASA, the space technology design companies are free to use their space vehicles to develop tourism into a viable business market that caters to interstellar scientists and business people, allowing them to rent a spacecraft for their commute. SpaceX intends to begin putting private citizens in space by 2015 while Boeing is aiming at 2017 for their launch. Powered by the same kind of visionary thinking that put man on the moon for the first time, SpaceX and its competitors’ success in the space technology race to develop an interstellar rental tourism market for their rockets could inspire a new wave of pioneers and set them dancing among the stars where only the select few have gone before.
by Tamara Christine Van Hooser