When will commercial space flight be feasible? INACTIVE

Dear Cecil:

When will average people feasibly be able to afford a commercial trip into orbit?

Cecil replies:

What’s your idea of average? If it’s “people who have $98,000 they can plunk down for a 2.5 hour ride in 2001 aboard a spacecraft that isn’t even built yet,” there’s a company that’ll take your money right now. It’s called Zegrahm Space Voyages, based in Seattle. They probably figure they’ll get a lot of business from Microsoft execs cashing out on their stock.

I had two basic questions when I called up Zegrahm, which made its name offering trips to exotic locales like Antarctica and Botswana: (1) Is this a scam? and (2) what are the chances it will actually, you should pardon the expression, fly? Having talked to Zegrahm vice president Scott Fitzsimmons at length, I’m willing to believe these people are sincere. Whether they’ll succeed remains to be seen, but if it were me contemplating the trip I’d definitely have some backup vacation plans.

What Zegrahm and its partners propose (design is being overseen by a company called Vela Technology Development) is an update of the old X-15 rocket plane from the 1950s and 60s. As with the X-15, which was launched from a B-52, two vehicles are involved. The Space Cruiser is a vaguely Space Shuttle-like craft that will carry six passengers and two pilots. It’ll be borne aloft by the Sky Lifter, a larger aircraft along the lines of the British Vulcan bomber.

The Cruiser will remain suborbital, reaching an altitude of 100 kilometers. The passengers will be weightless for only about 2.5 minutes, but they’ll be able to float around the cabin, and one supposes they’ll experience a reasonable approximation of orbital space flight. (Possible drawback: when the astronauts did weightless training in a jet transport flying in a parabolic arc similar to that proposed for the Space Cruiser, they nicknamed it the Vomit Comet.) Interestingly, the Cruiser’s rockets will burn a combination of propane and nitrous oxide, the well-known dental anesthetic. So even if the rest of project goes bust, the fuel will be good for a few laughs.

One obvious problem is that although the projected launch date is December 1, 2001, Zegrahm and Vela have yet to start building the two vehicles. Engineering work is complete, Scott says, and a rocket engine has been tested. He optimistically believes construction can be completed in a year and a half, allowing another year and a half for certification by the Federal Aviation Administration.

All of this is expected to cost about $150 million. Scott wouldn’t say how much money they’d raised yet, but my guess is it’s a lot closer to $1 than $150 million. Not to worry, he says; negotiations are underway with unnamed heavyweights. I was led to believe these were established aerospace or aircraft companies for whom the development of a suborbital craft would have potentially profitable spinoffs, for example for long-distance commercial air travel–New York to LA, say, or New York to Tokyo. Scott thinks (well, hopes) something may pop by fall.

On the face of it the economics of commercial passenger space flight don’t add up. Even at a hundred grand a head, the proposed spacecraft would have to make 250 voyages to recover the development cost, and that’s allowing nothing for operating expenses. Sure, there might be some money in spinoffs, but supersonic craft such as the Concorde have been less than a resounding financial success.

What seems to keep the whole thing going is the surprisingly widespread conviction that passenger-carrying commercial spacecraft are an idea whose time has come. The X Prize Foundation, backed by business leaders in St. Louis, is offering $10 million to the first private venture to carry passengers into space. (You have to do it at least twice, to prove it wasn’t a fluke.) The foundation has already raised half the prize money; author Tom Clancy pitched in $100,000. So far 15 teams including Zegrahm have registered their interest, many with considerable aerospace expertise.

There’s a space-hungry public out there, too. Scott says Zegrahm has had inquiries from 6,000 prospective passengers in 42 countries, and 40 true believers have put down all or part of the $98,000 fare. (There’s a $5,000 minimum deposit, in case you’re a little short this week.)

Will they get this thing off the ground? I’d say the chances of it happening by December 1, 2001 are pretty slim. (If there’s a delay of more than a year, the Zegrahm passengers can get their money back.) But someday, who knows? Twenty years ago I scoffed to think I’d ever be balancing my checkbook on a personal computer, and guess what I do it on now.

LATE UPDATE

Zegrahm Space Voyages apparently has been taken over by an outfit called Space Adventures, but you can still buy tickets for the flight. Check out the Space Adventures Website at http://www.spaceadventures.com/.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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