Making space for rich tourists

Space travel for the well-heeled citizen is about to lift off.

FANCY a trip into space? You could be queuing at the departure gate within a year or two - provided you have a cool $200,000 or so to spare.

Most recent estimates say that only 500 people have ever left Earth's atmosphere but if the forecasts are right, there'll soon be more private citizens than there are satellites bobbing around in zero gravity.

As NASA winds down its operations in favour of dishing out multimillion-dollar Space Act Agreement contracts to the private sector, it has triggered a flurry of activity among billionaire investors keen to plough their stratospheric wealth into the effort.

Entrepreneurial fortunes are also being committed to commercial ventures such as asteroid mining and space cargo, potentially fuelling a new economic boom.

Australian space expert Glen Nagle, from the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, said many companies had been building space-flight technology for the US government for years.

"You've also got the billionaires who made money out of the internet and who are looking for the next great idea who are driving those endeavours," he said.

British multibillionaire Richard Branson was one of the first to plant his flag on the space tourism market with the creation of Virgin Galactic, which boasts the world's first commercial "spaceport" in the New Mexico desert. Bookings are now being taken, with the cost of a suborbital voyage about $200,000. Virgin plans to begin commercial operations next year.

Branson says he wants to make space travel available to the masses. But the cost is expected to fall only when spaceships can fly from an airport runway - which is expected to become a reality within the decade.

A spaceplane called Skylon is already being built by the UK Space Agency. The reusable, pilotless plane will reportedly carry up to 24 passengers.

Boeing has teamed with a company called Space Adventures that has already sent a handful of private citizens to a space station - albeit at a cost per seat of about $40 million. Seven passengers will ride the Boeing Crew Space Transportation-100 spacecraft and it is expected to be operational by 2015.

Not surprisingly, tech and internet moguls are also well represented in many of the latest space ventures. If you take a look at the financial backers of a new asteroid mining company called Planetary Resources that launched last month, you'll find Google co-founders Larry Page and Eric Schmidt.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has also joined the space race, setting up a company called Blue Origin, which is developing vertical takeoff and landing vehicles to enable private passengers access to suborbital and orbital space at a lower cost.

Then there's SpaceX, which was created by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk. In addition to launching rockets that carry satellites and spacecraft to orbit, the company designs spacecraft to transport cargo.

Australian companies are also getting in on the action, says Michael Brett, chief operating officer of Aerospace Concepts, a company that builds prototypes in the military, space, telecommunications and science sectors.

He says local companies are mostly contributing niche space technologies such as earth observation, navigation and communications. Aerospace Concepts has been working with US companies to provide advanced space safety analysis for commercial space flight.

"Regulators face a tough challenge with these new ventures - they need to ensure the safety of the general public and spaceflight passengers, while also encouraging innovation."

This article Making space for rich tourists was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.