The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston hosted a session yesterday titled “50 Years of the Space Age: Looking Back, Looking Forward”. The session an eclectic panel: space historian Roger Launius (as moderator), former Soviet space scientist and advisor Roald Sagdeev, former astronaut Kathy Sullivan, and Andrew Aldrin of Boeing/ULA. With a panel this diverse, you could expect to discuss a wide range of topics. Interestingly, they focused a fair amount of time on space tourism, and they did not have the most optimistic assessment.
Sagdeev provided a little bit of history. In 1987 he accompanied Mikhail Gorbachev to a summit meeting with Ronald Reagan. During the summit there was a reception where various Soviet and American dignitaries and other famous people mingled. At the reception, Sagdeev recalled, he was approached by someone interested in flying into space on a Soyuz: singer John Denver. Sagdeev helped broker negotiations between Denver and the Soviet space program (which was just then beginning to be open to commercial arrangements like this). They settled on a final price for the flight—$10 million—and Denver tried to raise the money. He failed, as some people familiar with the pre-history of space tourism recall, and tragically died a short time later in an ultralight accident.
Sagdeev said Denver told him that he had been a “finalist” to fly on the ill-fated Challenger flight, a claim that Sullivan found dubious. “I can’t tell you how many, at least scores, of people who I have met—journalists, musicians, others—who are absolutely, positively convinced that they were on the short list to get on Challenger,” she said. “I never saw any of them in any training. John Denver never went through any simulations, let me tell you that.”
Launius, noting that despite the long interest in space tourism, “the reach has exceeded the grasp” in terms of actual accomplishments in the field, asked the panel what they thought about the prospects of space tourism. Sullivan declared herself a skeptic. “I don’t see what they’re doing,” she said, referring to suborbital vehicle developers, “that is going to enable us to fundamental changes in technologies that fundamentally change the cost equation or the safety equation.” The work she does see involves taking known technologies, making incremental improvements to them, and then “cobbling them together into new systems.” (She undercut that argument a bit later when she said the airline industry took off in the US after World War 2, built on surplus aircraft and former military pilots; that, certainly, did not require new technology, and we are beginning to see a similar shift from the government to commercial world as astronauts leave NASA to take positions with entrepreneurial space ventures.)
Sagdeev said that he believes a Soyuz flight to orbit could be as cheap as $10 million (although the going rate is now close to three times that figure.) The current passenger flight rate for those missions, one or two people per year, is a “miserable figure”, in his words. (Of course, those flight rates are constrained by ISS servicing requirements as well as competition for those seats from the Russian government.)
Aldrin, who said that “in most space communities I’m regarded as kind of a skeptic on this issue”, was actually more optimistic than his fellow panelists. argues that the suborbital space tourism market, based on existing market studies, is probably too small to interest big aerospace companies. The number of vehicles needed to service the market is small, so you can’t set up a big production line and get economies of scale as you can with airliners. “For publicly-held companies, it’s going to be tough to justify the expense and risk of getting into that business,” he said. “It really is going to require entrepreneurship and, perhaps from a shareholder’s perspective, irrational investment, to make this happen.”