Brief Saturday Space Access overview

As before, here’s a brief summary of some highlights of the Space Access ’06 sessions on Saturday relevant to space tourism:

You might remember the February 2005 announcement of the Personal Spaceflight Federation, a new industry group created to support the emerging space tourism industry. However, after that initial announcement, there was no other visible activity regarding the organization. Mike Kelly said at the conference Saturday that the federation is in the process of being relaunched. It will take on several issues, such as the development of voluntary industry standards (as noted in the February 2005 announcement) as well as other regulatory issues (FAA rulemaking, ITAR, etc.) and the public’s perception of the industry. He said that there are about a dozen companies involved with the federation, which will include vehicle developers and operators, spaceport operators, and orbital destination developers, but Kelly wouldn’t disclose which companies are involved; a formal announcement is planned for some point in the near future.

John Gedmark of the X Prize Foundation talked about the upcoming X Prize Cup 2006 in October in Las Cruces, NM. The event will feature NASA’s Lunar Lander Challenge for developers of vehicles that can vertically take off, hover, translate, and land. (See yesterday’s post about Armadillo’s plans for the competition.) The exact rules and even prize amounts are in flux, and Gedmark would only say that a final announcement would be made about the competition “soon”. The XP Cup will also be the home of the Reusable Rocket challenge, for launching, recovering, and reusing sounding rockets or VTVL vehicles. Rules for that competition are still under development.

Speaking of prizes, Brant Sponberg of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program talked about several other prizes either in progress or under development. One of particular interest for the personal spaceflight community is a low-cost space pressure suit. The notional prize amount for this is $1 million, and the rules are still under development. NASA is also still studying a potential human orbital spaceflight competition, with prizes (first and second) totaling $100-150 million. In addition, Sponberg noted that NASA is looking into the possibility of purchasing suborbital spaceflight services from the commercial sector in order to fly microgravity payloads. One issue is that the microgravity environment of the coming generation of suborbital vehicles has not been quantified; Sponberg said NASA would first fly accelerometers on these vehicles (under Space Act agreements with the companies) to measure the quality of the microgravity, and then see what scientific interest there might be in flying payloads on those vehicles.

A couple of small companies discussed their COTS proposals that look to the space tourism market in addition to flying cargo and crew to and from the ISS. Len Cormier discussed his “Space Van 2010″ proposal, a two stage to orbit vehicle, with staging taking place at an altitude of 81.5 km and a speed of Mach 5.5. (An illustration of Space Van 2010, but no other technical details, is on his web site.) Space Van 2010 would be able to carry four or five passengers. George Herbert of Venturer Aerospace discussed his S-550 capsule proposal, which would launch atop a Falcon 9 to carry up to six people or several tons of cargo to the ISS. The main capsule would be reusable several times; only an external aeroshell would need to be replaced after each flight. Herbert estimated that a S-550 flight would be priced at $15-20 million plus the cost of the launch vehicle.

One of the livelier panels of the conference was a Saturday morning session on investing, featuring Joe Pistritto, Stephen Fleming, and Esther Dyson, all three of whom have made investments in companies in this field. One of the big issues about the so-called NewSpace industry is the difficulty lining up financing, particularly among institutional investors. Dyson in particular gave attendees a dose of tough love by noting how difficult it is for investors to figure out this emerging industry. “There’s an awful lot lacking here in terms of the space industry becoming a real industry,” she said, adding that if she was an investor with “real money” (i.e., a VC), and not an angel investor, “I would run fleeing from the room, because I can’t figure out how this industry works, who sells to whom, how the market works. It’s still not very visible.” However, she said later in response to a question about the difficulty of making investors aware of the industry, “I don’t think there’s a problem. I think we’re early. A two-year-old behaving like a two-year-old is not a problem. A five-year-old behaving like a two-year-old is a problem. We’re still very early in the cycle.”

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