Space Adventures suborbital and orbital update

Tom Shelley of Space Adventures

Tom Shelley, president of Space Adventures, updates NewSpace 2010 attendees on his company's suborbital and orbital spaceflight plans.

Two months ago, at the International Space Development Conference in Chicago, Space Adventures announced a partnership with Armadillo Aerospace to develop vehicles for suborbital space tourism. At the end Friday of the first day of the NewSpace 2010 conference in Sunnyvale, California, Tom Shelley, the new president of Space Adventures, provided a brief review on the company’s suborbital plans. (Shelley took over as president about a month ago, he said; Eric Anderson is still there as chairman, but Shelley said he’s involved in more of the day-to-day activities of the company now.)

Shelley didn’t make any major announcements about the company’s suborbital efforts yesterday, instead primarily summarizing the plans to have Armadillo develop a vehicle that can serve what Shelley said could be a huge market: he noted that there are about 10 million people with investible assets of $1 million or more, and who could thus afford a $100,000 suborbital flight if they’re so inclined. Shelley went on to suggest that the fraction of those people who would be interested could be huge: he cited a survey of several hundred jet owners, 69% of whom said they’d be interested in flying into space. “There was no context to that,” he admitted, saying that survey didn’t describe what sort of spaceflight experience would be offered. “Even if it’s ridiculously wrong,” he said, offering something closer to 20% that had been noted in previous surveys, “that’s still a pretty good number.”

“There is a market, and we have barely scratched the surface,” Shelley said. One challenge the company has faced, he said, is describing what the spaceflight experience will be like for suborbital flyers, something that can be difficult to do since there are no vehicles flying yet. “What we’re missing is the actual flight, the actual moment where a real person, a real paying passenger, gets on the vehicle and we take them up into suborbital space,” he said. “At that point the market for sure is going to explode.”

Shelley also briefly discussed Space Adventures’ orbital plans, hinting that there are new developments coming soon. Asked why, given that Space Adventures has been able to readily fill seats on Soyuz taxi flights to the ISS when offered, it hasn’t yet flown a dedicated mission, Shelley said it came down to cost. “Selling expensive spaceflights is not easy,” he said. “When your price goes from $20 million to $35 million to more over the course of very short period of time, it’s a challenge to find customers who are prepared to put up that money.” However, he added, “The customers are there, and there’s going to be some fun announcements coming out of us in the next few months about future missions and future contracts that we have signed.”

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