Is there really a market for space tourism? Russia is already serving it, Richard Branson plans to follow suit and now Europe wants to be part of the Next Big Thing in luxury travel: EADS Astrium, a subsidiary of Europe's beleaguered aerospace giant, unveiled a plan on Wednesday to send tourists hurtling to an altitude of roughly 100 kilometers (62 miles), where they would experience a 90-minute suborbital flight and up to three minutes of weightlessness.
The first trips, announced on the eve of Paris's Le Bourget Air Show, are expected in 2012, Astrium spokesman Mathias Pikelj said. Like other companies offering excursions just beyond the earth's atmosphere, Astrium's brief space adventures come with a hefty price tag of €150,000 ($200,000) to €200,000 per passenger. Of course, that's a fraction of the $20 million price tag for a flight on a Russian Soyuz capsule to the International Space Station today.
EADS Astrium President Francois Auque estimated that the market for space tourism could grow to as many as 15,000 passengers per year by 2020.
EADS's prototype envisions a spacecraft about the size of a private jet. It would be launched from a conventional airport and first fire up its rockets at an altitude of about 12 kilometers. According to the company, the spacecraft would then throttle passengers at Mach 3 to a height of 60 kilometers in just 80 seconds, then cut off the rockets and glide to the 100 kilometer mark. Passengers would then be able to "hover weightlessly for three minutes and witness the most spectacular view of Earth imagineable" as the pilot steers the ship using small rocket thrusters, according to a company statement.
A new space race?
The project is expected to start in 2008. Pikelj said EADS Astriumexpected to raise appoximately €1 billion in startup funds by the end of this year. At the Paris airshow the company unveiled a model of the spaceship's interior, which will feature hammock-like seats that automatically adjust to minimize the effects of acceleration and deceleration.
By entering the space tourism business, EADS will challenge an American firm called the Spaceship Company, which is currently working on the successor to its legendary Space Ship One, the first privately financed spacecraft to reach suborbital altitudes (twice, in 2004). Space Ship One is an experimental aircraft with a rocket engine that cannot be launched on its own. The company is now building Space Ship Two, which will also need a piggyback ride to its launching altitude on a carrier plane (the "White Knight Two," also under construction). The spacecraft will be used by British entrepreneur Richard Branson's new firm Virgin Galactic, which has started offering reservations on its Web site for $200,000 (about €150,000).
At the moment, however, Russia's space agency holds a monopoly on space travel. It offers trips to the International Space Station on its Soyuz rockets. The last civilian to book was American software engineer Charles Simonyi, who paid an estimated €19 million for the privilege of hanging out with the crew of the International Space Station.