- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 21, 2007

Fewer than 500 people have traveled to space throughout history. But space tourism advocates want that to change as soon as possible.

Advocates of private space travel say it could open up a new commercial space industry that would provide job and economic-growth opportunities as well as the possibility for space-based solar power. They also say it is the next step in adventure travel, such as African safaris or trips to Antarctica.

“Humans like to go to new and unique places and have unique experiences,” said John Spencer, founder of the Space Tourism Society, which aims to promote the space tourism industry. “We have seen that throughout history.”

Mr. Spencer described the “overview effect” of space travel, which advocates say would lead people to feel more unified despite differences among countries.

The commercial space industry can create various entrepreneurial opportunities, said Jeff Krukin, the executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation. Founded in 1988, the Space Frontier Foundation, which ends its four-day annual conference in Arlington County’s Crystal City today, is a group composed of space activists, scientists, engineers, politicians, entrepreneurs and others devoted to opening to the private sector space travel and even potential space settlement.

“One industry leads to new opportunities in other industries,” he said.

Both the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Commerce have offices devoted to the regulation of commercial space travel and business.

The commercial space industry is rapidly expanding.

Overall, 21 commercial orbital launches occurred worldwide in 2006, which made up 32 percent of all launches for the year, according to the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

Several state governments also are joining the commercial space movement, Mr. Krukin said.

In April, the Virginia state legislature enacted a law to help boost commercial space activity by allowing use of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island. MARS was one of the nation’s first nonfederal spaceports when the FAA granted its license in 1997. It is now joined by six more across the country. Last year, Congress funded a $500,000 study into expanding the Wallops facility into a “next-generation commercial cargo spaceport.”

“Virginia is an example of one of the states that aren’t waiting for NASA or the federal government,” Mr. Krukin said.

Several space tourists already have entered space, and the industry is growing at a rapid pace, Mr. Spencer said.

Space Adventures, a Vienna, Va., company, books passage on Russian rockets that take their customers on orbits above Earth and then to the International Space Station, where they stay for 10 days. So far, five persons have paid between $20 million and $25 million to travel on the orbital flights.

For the even more adventurous with $100 million to spend, Space Adventures is developing the first private flight around the moon.

For those without millions to spend, several companies are developing space tourism flights with smaller price tags.

Space tourism company Virgin Galactic has predicted it will be able to sellspace tourist flights by 2009.

The difference, Mr. Spencer said, is that Virgin Galactic will offer a suborbital flight, which does not allow the private space traveler to fly around the Earth.

The company, which was started by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, plans to offer one 2½-hour flight per week with six passengers and two pilots. Ticket prices are set to start at $200,000. In February, Virgin Galactic and NASA signed anagreement allowing Virgin Galactic access to NASA research facilities in California.

Mr. Branson is not the only billionaire interested in space.

“Some of the smartest most successful business people in the world are taking part in this exciting new industry,” Mr. Spencer said.

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos founded the company Blue Origin in 2005 with the aim of building an suborbital space facility in Texas.

Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen financed the creation of SpaceShipOne, which was designed by aerospace designer Burt Rutan, who also designed the Voyager, the first airplane to circle the world nonstop without refueling.

SpaceShipOne became the first manned, private spaceship when it was launched in June 2004. It is on display in the National Air and Space Museum.

The demand for private space tourism opportunities is continuing to grow, Mr. Spencer said.

Bethesda’s Futron Corp., an aerospace consulting firm, projects that by 2020, more than 13,000 people will have taken part in the space tourism industry, generating almost $700 million in revenue.

Mr. Krukin acknowledged that there is a safety risk with space tourism.

“It is very important to be aware that once these crafts start flying, that just like with commercial aircraft one day there will be an accident,” he said.

But he said it is a risk he believes many people will be willing to take.

“It is very clear that at such an early stage there are risks,” he said. “The wonderful thing is that there are so many people who want to take the risk anyway.”

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