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16 July 2012
Space Future has been on something of a hiatus of late. With the concept of Space Tourism steadily increasing in acceptance, and the advances of commercial space, much of our purpose could be said to be achieved. But this industry is still nascent, and there's much to do. this space.
9 December 2010
Updated "What the Growth of a Space Tourism Industry Could Contribute to Employment, Economic Growth, Environmental Protection, Education, Culture and World Peace" to the 2009 revision.
7 December 2008
"What the Growth of a Space Tourism Industry Could Contribute to Employment, Economic Growth, Environmental Protection, Education, Culture and World Peace" is now the top entry on Space Future's Key Documents list.
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R Simberg, 2000, "Near-Term Prospects For Space Tourism", The Sophron Foundation. June 8, 2000. Copyright © Interglobal Space Lines, Inc., 2000.
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References and Referring Papers    Printable Version 
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Near-Term Prospects For Space Tourism
Rand Simberg
Prepared for
The Sophron Foundation
Interglobal Space Lines, Inc.

Interglobal Space Lines, Inc., of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is pleased to present the results of a brief study, performed for the Sophron Foundation, on the prospects for utilizing existing, or almost-existing, assets to: demonstrate the market for; perform market and physiological research on; serve as pathfinders for legal and regulatory impediments to; and start to shift public and institutional opinion on the viability of; space tourism. Such a study is in keeping with the Sophron Foundation's chartered goal of promoting the increasing development of useful space activity.

This analysis states and considers the general requirements for the development of a robust space tourism business, including both industry (producing vehicles and orbital hotel facilities) and commerce (marketing and providing space tourism services). It focuses on the near term, examining vehicles that are either existing, or in the late stages of development, and matches up their capabilities against those requirements. Specifically, physiological requirements for passengers are preliminarily defined, per discussion with relevant FAA flight surgeons, regulatory, liability, and political issues are identified, and high-end market prospects are preliminarily analyzed.


For those interested in opening up the new frontier of space, space tourism is a subject of intense fascination, for many reasons. It offers us all an opportunity to experience the unending weightlessness, the unsurpassable views from orbit and the transcending perspectives on our fragile planet and its place in the universe--an experience previously available only to a few hundred fortunates. Additionally, it would transform our nation's human spaceflight program from a centrally-commanded bureaucratic one, only for government employees, established during the Cold War to defeat another socialist space program--to one for every citizen, more in keeping with the historical egalitarian and free-market traditions of our nation. But perhaps most importantly, it is fascinating because serving this market could, perhaps uniquely, provide the economies of scale necessary to achieve all the other goals promoted by space enthusiasts for decades past.

The road to this goal may be a long and arduous one, because of many factors described in this brief report. But there are existing, or almost-existing, U.S. and international assets that can shorten and ease the journey. This report will discuss the prospects for utilizing them to: demonstrate the market for; perform market and physiological research on; serve as pathfinders for legal and regulatory impediments to; and start to shift public and institutional opinion on the viability of; this exciting and enabling new application of space technology. Such a study is well in keeping with the Sophron Foundation's chartered goal of promoting the increasing development of useful space activities.


There have been some preliminary market surveys, by Rockwell International, Space Expeditions, the Japanese Rocket Society, etc. (results of some of which are available at These have indicated potentially strong interest in public space travel (a huge fraction of the populace of all the industrial democracies would pay various amounts of money to go), but there have been no rigorous scientific surveys combined with focus groups that can be «taken to the bank» by a space tourism company.

This is ironic and, to proponents of space development and particularly space tourism, frustrating, because such surveys would cost a pittance (<<1%), compared to current government programs, such as NASA's X-33, that are ostensibly aimed at reducing the cost of access to space. In addition, their value in promoting confidence in the market to potential space tourism investors would be vast, in comparison to the technology studies toward which the majority of U.S. government funds are currently being deployed.

In the absence of such studies, however, or perhaps in conjunction with them, it would be useful to plumb the market for currently-existing experiences. This would permit us to determine the willingness of wealthy individuals to pay for actual space-related activities, and to flush out potential issues in providing space experiences to the general public (to be discussed in the sections following).

Based on our nation's specific experience over the past forty-plus years in space, and general experience with state bureaucracies throughout human history, it is clear that the government and its traditional aerospace contractors are not going to reduce the cost of space on their own--they currently (and for the foreseeable future) have few incentives to do so. For instance, the government market remains essentially non-elastic with respect to price. We must have new investment from the private sector to satisfy true market demand, in order to dramatically reduce the unit costs of access to low earth orbit, which in turn is the key to opening the new frontier of space. However, only a demonstrated market will draw in that necessary investment.

Medical Issues

Discussions with NASA life sciences and FAA aeromedical personnel provide some initial guidelines for medical issues that should be resolved either prior to, or as part of the process of, developing a service industry based on providing space transportation to the general public.

Space-related medical issues can be placed into two broad categories: short-duration and long-duration. After the initial flights in the early sixties demonstrated that there are no immediate life-threatening effects of space flight, NASA's life-science research has, for the most part, appropriately focused on the problems of longer-duration flights, as would be experienced on a trip to another planet or a tour of duty on a space station. Humans exposed to such longer-duration flights (assuming no artificial gravity) will start to suffer from osteopathic (bone) degeneration, and deconditioning of the cardiovascular system. They will also be exposed to unhealthy amounts of radiation, if the shielding is inadequate. Absent revolutionary breakthroughs in medical technology, these effects can be long-lasting, and in some cases (particularly with radiation), permanent.

At least in the near term, however, space tourist experiences, like most tourist experiences, will be of short duration (two weeks or less), and will not be affected by these more debilitating aspects. Of course, staff at orbital hotels, who may have tours of duty of weeks or months, will be affected in the same way as NASA researchers at scientific space platforms, if the hotels are not spun for artificial gravity.

Short-duration trips can again be bifurcated into brief exposures (suborbital or a few orbits), and longer ones (days).

Brief exposures will nominally have only health risks that would arise from any short-duration variable-gravity ride (e.g., intense roller coasters, or trips in high-performance jet aircraft, such as offered by Incredible Adventures). These will include (depending on the magnitude, direction, and duration of a given acceleration) possible blackout, or redout (rush of blood to the head, as opposed to away from it), headache, and nausea. Assuming that the passenger is in reasonably good health, accelerations remain within certain limits, and particularly if the participant is wearing a standard g-suit, such effects will be only transient, and not have any long-term health implications. If a suborbital vehicle is reasonably designed, a precedent for this has been provided by the Incredible Adventures offerings of high-performance jet rides in Russia.

Conventional motion-sickness medications/prophylactics, such as epidermal scopolamine/dexedrine («scopedex») skin patches, or even over-the-counter medications such as dramamine, may prove sufficiently palliative for this condition. Alternatively, techniques such as autogenic feedback, developed at NASA's Ames Research Center, may be useful for both this and the longer-term effects described below.

It should also be considered that, even if unmitigated, these consequences will at most reduce the market for such experience; there are still many who ride roller coasters and pay thousands of dollars to ride in Mig-29's even with the risk of such illness. Many who have experienced weightlessness in NASA's «Vomit Comet» and private alternatives have expressed interest in repeating the experience--even those who got quite ill. One of the values of such early experiences, even if no new medical insights are gained, will be to get a better understanding of the market even in the presence of possible unpleasant side effects.

During longer exposures to weightlessness, of days or weeks, the «Space Adaptation Syndrome,» more commonly known as space sickness, will appear in (if NASA experience is any guide) about half of the participants. This is akin to seasickness, in which the passenger may feel a malaise, and be nauseous, with difficulty in keeping food down.

In general, it is important to note that the space tourism business will have a much more potent remedial arsenal with which to tackle any space-sickness problems than does NASA, for the simple reason that space passengers, and particularly pleasure-seeking tourists, will not be operating under the same requirements of job performance that are typically expected, if not required, from astronauts. This opens up pharmaceutical/therapeutic possibilities not available to NASA personnel, who must reliably perform critical tasks on specific schedules.

Regulatory Issues

The general subject of regulation of U.S. space transportation systems is a complex one, and far beyond the scope of this report--we will instead focus on the aspects of it relating to passenger travel. Because of the immature (in fact, non-existent) state of the private space passenger business, the situation is legally unsettled. However, the present period, when the rules are in flux, is precisely the time that such issues should be resolved, and appropriately resolved, as they may have dramatic influence over the future of the public space travel service industry.

For the purpose of this survey, even for near-term space experiences, we must distinguish between actual, out-of-the-atmosphere space-passenger trips (e.g., suborbital rides, Shuttle rides, visits to Mir), and atmospheric flight experiences to the very edge of that same atmosphere (e.g., Mig-25 rides in Russia, SR-71 flights, parabolic flights for weightless experiences). This is because the FAA (by means of statutory authority of the U.S. Congress) has made such a distinction in terms of which branch of the agency will regulate each category, and the rules under which it shall be regulated.

In order to understand the current regulatory situation for space passengers, a brief history is in order.

During the early 1980s, there were no commercial launches of any kind in the US--everything was launched by either the Department of Defense, or NASA. When the first commercial satellite launch companies were formed, they found that there were no clear-cut processes in place to get approval from the government agencies that had to approve various aspects of the launch operations (e.g., FCC for telemetry, DoD for range safety, State Department for munitions issues, etc.) Recognizing this, and also recognizing the obligation of the government to ensure launch safety under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (which held states liable for any space activities within their jurisdiction), the Congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) in the mid 1980s. This legislation made the Department of Transportation (DOT) the responsible agency for issuing licenses for commercial U.S. launch operations, and coordinating the approvals among the other government agencies, thus setting up a one-stop shop for the commercial launch providers.

At the time this occurred, few were contemplating commercial passenger transportation, and the legislation reflected that. DOT was not given jurisdiction over the payloads themselves--their only responsibility, as required by the 1967 treaty, was to minimize or eliminate harm against third parties. Accordingly, there was then, and remains today, no language in the launch licensing procedure with regard to passengers, and for the purposes of the Act, they would be appropriately regulatorily treated as simply another cargo, not subject to DOT regulation, and handled with insurance.

It should be noted that some in the AST office (the office responsible for licensing launches) are of the opinion that, because the CSLA does not explicitly prohibit them from regulating trips carrying passengers differently than cargo flights, they have the flexibility to do so, should it be deemed in the public interest. This opinion is not universally shared, even within that office, and it is the author's opinion that such a position would not stand up to a court challenge, as it sets on its head traditional U.S. jurisprudence ("that which is not explicitly illegal is legal»). In the latter view, AST will have to be granted explicit authority by the Congress to regulate passenger trips in a different manner than cargo trips, since they have no authority to regulate cargos in general.

It should also be noted that there is a distinct difference between issuing a launch license and certifying a vehicle for commercial space transportation operations. In the wake of the CSLA, the original Office of Commercial Space Transportation (OCST) was established at the DOT, independently from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), to implement the agency responsibilities. They came up with a licensing procedure tailored to expendable launch vehicles, which were all that were contemplated at the time. Each license was (appropriately) issued for an individual launch, and did not require certification of the vehicle (in the same sense that an aircraft is certified for commercial operations).

A few years ago, the DOT reorganized OCST, and moved it so that it reported to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), under the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (Code AST--further information can be found at its web site, With the advent of potential commercial reusable space transportation vehicles, that office recently developed a new set of launch licensing procedures more appropriate to such vehicles. However, at the time these new procedures were in development, a conscious decision was made by the office to not require certification of reusable space transportation systems. This was done for two reasons.

First, all such certification is currently done (for aircraft) by the AVR branch of FAA, and this is where all of the relevant technical expertise resides. AST didn't have the budget or staff to support a certification activity, but, because it has sole responsibility for carrying out the mandate of the CSLA, it wasn't deemed appropriate for it to delegate a large portion of that responsibility to AVR.

Second, many felt that the commercial reusable space transportation business was not sufficiently mature to economically survive the kind of rigorous certification process now in place for modern aircraft. No one really has any experience with appropriate design practices and procedures for reusable space transportation vehicles, and imposing the existing aircraft rules could very well have the effect of strangling the fledgling industry in the nest. It has been pointed out that, had today's aircraft rules been in place during the 1920s and 1930s, we probably wouldn't have been able to develop a viable aviation business. So the current rules call for licensing of launches and returns, but not aircraft-like certification of space transportation vehicles.

This is a critical issue for near-term space tourism experiences, because some of them occur entirely within the atmosphere and, if provided in the U.S., must therefore operate under current FAA aviation rules (i.e., they remain under the jurisdiction of AVR--not necessarily AST).

However, even this case is complicated by two factors.

First, there is no bright legal line between in and out of the atmosphere. The International Space Station is clearly out of it. An unpressurized general-aviation aircraft is clearly within it. But there remains a legal grey area at the interface, which is, inevitably, where many of the early space tourist vehicles will be operating.

Second, AST has recently decided that it has jurisdiction even over some activities that clearly take place only within the sensible atmosphere, such as amateur rocket launches, apparently using the justification that they should license all rocket-powered vehicles. If this logic is extended to piloted vehicles, this opens up a great deal of uncertainty for developers of rocket-powered aircraft. Though they will do much of their initial flight testing within the atmosphere, they may now potentially be subject to regulation by both AVR and AST, even for such tests. To reduce investment uncertainty, this issue should be resolved as soon as possible, as will be discussed in the recommendations at the end of this paper.

Ignoring these complications, for airbreathing systems operating within the atmosphere, the current regulations present a significant barrier to proto-tourism activities. For some of them (such as offering the experience of extremely high-altitude flight in aircraft such as the SR-71 and U-2), the commercial certification necessary to permit paying passengers is totally infeasible under present interpretations of the law. For others (such as flying conventional jet transports in parabolic maneuvers to simulate weightlessness), while the aircraft could have their existing certificates extended for commercial passengers in this flight mode, the costs of doing so, given the uncertainty of the market, may be prohibitive. This issue will be discussed further and more specifically in the context of each relevant vehicle in the sections following.

For systems that fly out of the atmosphere, there are two categories (in the U.S.). The first is privately-developed systems. The second is government systems (primarily, or perhaps uniquely, the Space Shuttle). For both categories, transporting passengers will offer some interesting opportunities to establish precedents.

Privately-developed systems could in theory be certified for commercial flight, but for economic reasons, probably will not, at least initially, and the closest analogy to them in modern aviation regulatory terms would be experimental aircraft. However, because of the regulatory situation described above, in which AST (rather than AVR, the aircraft-certification branch of the FAA) might have sole jurisdiction, they could simply treat passengers as another form of cargo over which they have no authority (as long as it meets the State Department and Defense requirements with respect to munitions, export and general national security issues).

Given the immature state of the business, this would probably be the best outcome. However, if they do decide to attempt to regulate it in the same manner as AVR is regulating commercial aircraft flights, and such regulation stands up to a court challenge, there are still alternative methods of flying passengers, in the same way that the system can be finessed to allow paying passengers in experimental aircraft.

To elaborate on this, let us examine the government systems that might potentially be employed for early space tourism activities, since the same legal techniques will probably apply. In the case of the Shuttle, it has not been, and will not be, certified for commercial activity, partly for economic reasons, and partly for political reasons (NASA would argue against a rival government agency--FAA--being given oversight of their astronaut-carrying space transportation system). The X-34 (as indicated by its «X» designator) is an experimental flight-test vehicle, and similarly, it is unlikely that it would ever be commercially certified, though it is theoretically capable of carrying passengers (as will be discussed later).

However, there are precedents for carrying paying passengers on the Shuttle, and these could be applied to future Shuttle trips as well as trips of other government-owned and operated vehicles.

So in all cases, if passengers are to take space trips with current systems, novel approaches will have to be taken to allow them to legally do so.

For the near term, the issue can be finessed by making it a "non-commercial" trip, by flying it as "Ship's Company." By that we mean that whoever wanted to fly would simply set up a corporation or limited liability company (LLC) for the specific purpose of doing some sort of research, lease the vehicle and operators, and then assign themselves as "crew" on the flight. We already have a precedent for this with Charlie Walker, who basically flew on the Shuttle not because he was selected by NASA, but because McDonnell Douglas paid for research and had him sent up to perform it. Given how much these trips will cost, the additional overhead of the corporate structure is negligible. This will work for both Shuttle and X-34 flights, and possibly for some of the high-altitude aircraft as well.

Liability Issues

Regardless of the legal and regulatory aspects of the business, given the current overly litigious state of our society, any rational space tourism entrepreneur (and even more importantly, his/her investors) will be concerned with insurance and liability issues. These are inextricably entwined with the regulatory issues because, to the degree that the government regulates a business, the business (at least in theory) gains some degree of indemnification (though this legal principle has been severely tested, if not broken, in recent rulings against the tobacco industry, which was judged to have misled its customers despite the fact that it met the government requirements of health warnings on packages).

As in the regulatory discussion, early space tourism activities will establish precedents, and should be planned in that light. For trips on government vehicles, there will probably be no issue, since the government has very deep pockets in the unlikely event of a successful lawsuit against it. However, any private entities participating in the activity would also be at risk.

For now, the best general approach to dealing with this issue is probably the one discussed above--the «Ship's Company» approach--in which the passengers form their own corporation for the purpose of carrying out their «research.» This will not eliminate liability, but will mitigate it, depending on how cleverly the various contracts are written, and the number of intervening corporations provided as buffers against the deepest pockets.


There are at least three areas of potential political roadblocks to a viable space tourism business.

First of all, it should be recognized that there are some (though by no means all, or even a majority) within the U.S. government who view space (or at least the human spaceflight segment thereof) as an exclusive province of (federal) science and national security, and private-sector activities of any kind as interlopers. To those with such views, opening up this frontier to anyone who wishes to go, at costs that are affordable to the general public, rather than privileged government agencies, will be seen as at best an inconvenience and irritation, and at worst a threat to national security and (less nobly) their own bureaucratic power base.

Second, to whatever degree that this activity is actually supported by federal funding, unless it is provided via lottery, some will view it as a taxpayer subsidy to the wealthy (who, barring lotteries or contests, will initially be the only ones who can afford space trips) for their own frivolous pleasure. Even if there is no government funding involved, there is historically such a strong linkage in the mind of the public between NASA and space that any space tourism activity, even private, may still be mistakenly perceived by some as a waste of public funds. It is important, therefore, that economic gain, increased tax base, and productive employment be promoted as an inevitable byproduct of a successful space tourism business.

Finally, there is a segment of society that seeks the elusive (indeed, impossible) goal of zero risk in all activities. Relating back to the regulatory issues, there is a danger that some «public-interest» groups will attempt to impose, by lobbying for legislation or regulations, unreasonable standards on space tourism vehicles and operations.

Specifically with regard to use of the Space Shuttle for nascent space tourism activities, some within NASA will be concerned about the potential public-relations disaster of another civilian loss, as occurred in the Challenger incident. There will be specific legitimate concerns, discussed more in the section on public Shuttle rides, about interference with the mission and flight safety. In addition, many will be loathe to give up a precious seat to a non-NASA person when they have so many astronauts in the corps who have yet to fly, even though it might be in the national interest to do so.

In general, early space tourism activities will act as a pathfinder to test the political and institutional waters, and educate both the public and the various entities within the Beltway on the subject of public space travel and private space activities in general. Particularly as a number of different companies emerge, both as vehicle providers and service providers, and market their services, the current inseparability in the public mind between the government and space will gradually erode, substantially improving the prospects for both building markets and attracting investors.


This item has been deliberately left for last, because, in the opinion of the author (who has several engineering degrees, was a project manager at a major space firm, and considers himself first and foremost a technologist), it is of the least importance. While the conventional wisdom is that technology is the show stopper for low-cost routine space transportation and a viable space tourism business (as exemplified by NASA's ongoing promotion of such technology demonstration programs as X-33, X34, et. al.), a serious analysis of the situation reveals that the current technology level is the least of the problems confronting space tourism entrepreneurs.

Accordingly, specific technologies needed to reduce the costs will not be addressed here, except to note that all of them have second or third order effects on cost, relative to the much more fundamental driver of economies of scale. Even a poorly-designed, low-technology vehicle, if flown at high enough rates, will be less costly to operate than any space transportation system operating today. Conversely, the best-designed space transportation system will still have astronomical costs if only flown a few times a year, e.g., (not to imply that its design couldn't have been improved) the Space Shuttle.

There are many ways of building high-flight-rate vehicles, and many technical solutions to solving the design requirements, but the most difficult problem remains not in design and implementation, but in raising needed investment funds. It is hoped that this paper, and similar ones, will help in reducing this more fundamental barrier.


While this list is not exhaustive (e.g., Russian aircraft and spacecraft options are not included), it does include all practical vehicles for near-term space tourism whose use can be addressed by changes in present US government policies. They have been organized into four categories: parabolic aircraft flights to simulate weightlessness, high-altitude aircraft rides to the edge of space, suborbital rides into space, and orbital trips.

Parabolic Aircraft

Parabolic flight, to provide a half minute of weightlessness in conventional subsonic transports, has been performed by NASA for over forty years, and this has been viewed for a long time as one of the prime areas to privatize. In the past, the political opposition to this from NASA, and some of its supporters on the Hill, has been intense. However, it raises a legitimate question: if we can't privatize simply flying a Boeing transport, how can we even think about privatizing the Space Shuttle or International Space Station, as many seem to want to do?

In addition to the political resistance, another problem with private parabolic aircraft is that there is no clean regulatory category for them within the FAA. Under current law, if an air transport service is offered to the public, the operator must operate under the rules of Part 121 or 135 (depending on the size of the aircraft) and the aircraft must be certified to operate under that regime. While commercial transports are certified for Part 121, they are not certified to perform the parabolic maneuver necessary to provide the weightless experience. Thus, to operate one under Part 121 for weightless maneuvers, it must be modified as necessary for the maneuver, and receive a Special Type Certification (STC) for those maneuvers from the FAA engineering division and AVR. This is a process that could prove to be both time consuming and very expensive (though hopefully not as expensive as the original certification process, which can involve hundreds of millions of dollars).

It should be noted that NASA itself does not meet these requirements with their military KC-135 cargo aircraft, but used one, despite this, to provide commercial parabolic services to Imagine Entertainment for the filming of the movie Apollo XIII. Since then, while they can continue to do these maneuvers for their own astronaut training and research, they have been barred by the FAA from further commercial work (resulting, for example, in actor/producer Bruce Willis being turned down when he requested the use of a NASA KC-135 for the filming of Armageddon).

Another ironic policy anomaly resulting from NASA's unwillingness to privatize parabolic flight is that, even though they are not and cannot be certified by the FAA to carry paying passengers, they regularly carry college, and even high-school students in their aircraft to perform student experiments.

A result of NASA's continued operation of their own aircraft for astronaut training and weightless research is that the market for private aircraft is significantly reduced. Like the launch problem, costs are potentially high for a parabolic aircraft business because there may not be enough customers to fully utilize the aircraft, and amortize the high costs of getting the special type certification necessary. If the private entity could pick up some or all of the NASA business as a contractor, in addition to the private market demand for research and weightless experiences, it might make such a venture more economically viable.

As a result of this, to the author's knowledge, other than past attempts by Interglobal Space Lines, and the now-failed Casey Aerospace corporation, there is only one private entity (the Zero-G company) seriously attempting to get a transport aircraft certifed for commercial parabolic flight in the U.S., and their progress in doing so remains uncertain. However, if they do get the aircraft certified for Part 121, it is estimated that the cost per person per one hour flight would be on the order of a minimum of several hundred dollars, and could range to an order of magnitude more, depending on the demand level. How large the market would be at these prices is unknown.

Incredible Adventures has been selling such a service on the Russian IL-76 cosmonaut training aircraft for several years for about five thousand dollars, not including travel expenses to, from and within Russia. At that price, they have only sold a dozen or so experiences per year (one or two flights). It is not clear to what degree the market size for this is depressed by the necessity to travel to Russia. The kinds of individuals who can afford this kind of experience don't generally have the time to devote to such a relatively long trip, and given the current crime levels and corruption there, many consider it highly risky, in addition to the inconvenience. On this basis, and feedback from the customers, it is estimated that a similarly-priced U.S. domestic experience would generate demand at least one, and possibly two orders of magnitude greater than the Russian equivalent.

In the absence of such a commercially-certified aircraft, there are only two domestic options for providing parabolic experiences--flights in aircraft certificated for experimental flight operations (as has been done in the past by Weaver Aerospace Corporation) or a change in NASA (and FAA) policy to allow paying passengers on the KC-135. The former is very expensive, and occurs quite rarely. The latter option would establish a precedent for use of the Shuttle in a similar manner, but would meet strong resistance from some within both NASA and the FAA. This would not eliminate the issue of aircraft certification, and it isn't clear whether it could be done simply as a matter of agency policy, or if legislation would be required to implement it.

The best solution would be to have NASA actually contract out for their parabolic services on a private commercial aircraft. In addition to bringing the activity under the regulatory umbrella, this could aid the fledgling space tourism business in at least three ways:

First, it would establish precedents for privatizing NASA activities in general, perhaps breaking down some of resistance within the NASA bureaucracy to Space Shuttle and ISS privatization that clearly exists, despite public statements and official policy to the contrary.

Second, it would bring economies of scale to the business by consolidating the private and government markets, thus reducing costs to both NASA and the customers among the general public.

Finally, it would open up weightless experiences to the general public. At costs of a few hundred dollars per flight, thousands would experience it, providing a valuable data base on how to handle the issues of motion sickness, and introducing the public (many of whom might be potential investors) to the concept of private space tourism activities. This could provide a foundation for a public space travel and tourism market that could be built on further with the higher and faster experiences discussed in the next sections.

High-Altitude Aircraft

High-altitude aircraft offer the opportunity to experience other aspects of space than the weightless experiences provided by parabolic aircraft. Passengers in a flight to 60,000 feet and above would see the curvature of the earth below and the dark sky of space above. They would see expansive views of whatever region they were flying over, above most of the clouds.

Some have pointed out that much of this can be experienced with a Concorde flight at 50,000 feet. Since the Concorde is viewed as an economic failure, in the sense that it does not pay its full costs (the French and British governments absorbed the development and manufacturing costs), but only the direct operating costs, that this means that there is no money to be made in a high-altitude tourism venture. This argument is flawed on at least two grounds:

First of all, the Concorde experience is not exactly what would be provided in a high-altitude joy ride--the windows, for the seats that have them, are rather small, most of the flight is over the ocean, and fifty-thousand feet may not be sufficiently high to offer the full experience. Since the view is the main attraction of the activity proposed here, one cannot draw any conclusions about the demand for such an activity from Concorde flights.

Second, Concorde was a financial disaster not because it is an unpleasant or even uninteresting flight experience or because it had no market--it was a financial disaster because it had high development costs to amortize over a market that was primarily a transportation market-- one limited by its high price and its inability to fly routes over land or over the Pacific, for reasons of sonic boom and short range capability. A tourism vehicle might have a limited market as well, but it's quite conceivable that it could make money with that market, if it were appropriately designed to specifically address it.

Four candidate aircraft for such an experience have been identified--three government-developed airplanes (though some instances of them may be privately owned), and one privately-developed aircraft.


This Lockheed creation is the highest-performance aircraft ever built--it holds both altitude and speed records. As an example of its performance, the Blackbird cruises above Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound). It has set numerous speed and altitude records including the following:

New York to London    1 hr., 54 min., 56.4 sec.
London to Los Angeles    3 hrs., 47 min., 35.8 sec.
Los Angeles to Washington D.C.   1 hr., 4 min., 20 sec.
West Coast to East Coast U.S.    1 hr., 7 min., 54 sec.
St. Louis to Cincinnati    8 min.
Kansas City to Washington D.C.   26 min.

The top speed was in excess of 2,193 miles per hour at an altitude of over 85,000 feet. That breaks down to about 35 miles per minute. The aircraft measures 99 feet by 55 feet at a height of 18 feet. It has an empty mass of 60,000 lbm. and masses 120,000 lbm. when fueled.

For a passenger, both the speed and the altitude would provide a considerable and unique thrill. The altitude is achievable in Russia in a Mig-25, but not the speed, and not for the length of time offered by the SR-71. It would be a comparatively mild ride from a g-force standpoint.

Unfortunately, while it is the queen of all high-performance aircraft, it is now a hangar queen. The Blackbird was retired by the U.S. Air Force in 1990 after twenty-five years of service. Several of the planes were transferred to NASA for research and development and for tests that involve high altitude, speed and thermal conditions. None are currently operating, but two are stored in flying condition. It is estimated that it would require two million dollars to reactivate them. This would consist mostly of crew recertification. For the purposes of this study, we would have to use a two-seat version, either a trainer (with dual controls) or one with a rear seat for the Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO). NASA's two flyable aircraft include one of each.

In addition to the recertification costs, there are other issues and cost issues associated with using this aircraft. The fuel is unique in that it has a high-performance kerosene base (JP-7) and has to be ignited by a catalyst, tetraethyl borane. There is only enough left in existence for another fifteen flights or so (perhaps ten of which would be required to get pilots current again). So unless a new batch of fuel is ordered from Atlantic Richfield (for which a line would have to be restarted), there would be at most five flights available for passengers after return to operational status. Also, a pressure suit would have to be purchased or rented for the passenger (these cost on the order of a hundred thousand dollars). Russian suits could be procured at lower cost, but would not be interface compatible with the aircraft flight equipment. Including the two million in startup, and the ten flights for recertification (at a hundred thousand dollars per flight hour), each of those five flights would probably ultimately cost over a million dollars apiece.

There is probably sufficient demand for such a flight at that price, but the politics will remain a barrier, absent clear policy direction to make it happen. The Air Force still has very proprietary feelings toward the aircraft, and they are considered to be on loan to NASA. While no one would formally admit it, it is clear that having NASA use them was a means of maintaining availability of the asset to the DoD for reconnaissance, should they be needed, despite the official policy to retire them. There would undoubtedly be a great deal of resistance in some Defense quarters to using it for tourist joyrides.

However, there might be an opportunity to leverage this desire to retain the vehicle's capabilities, by proposing that the fleet be privatized, but remain available to the services (and NASA) for emergencies, similar to the Civil Reserve Air Fleet. Unfortunately, the spares (many of which are no longer manufactured, and available only on old blueprint at the Lockheed-Martin Skunk Works) and fuel situation are such that maintaining a fleet of such aircraft will probably be beyond the financial reach of a private concern, even with high-paying passengers.

Should such a program be created, the main purpose of it would be to demonstrate market and pathfind political, regulatory and insurance issues--it is unlikely that any useful medical data would be gained (at least in terms of later space tourism experiences).

U-2 (ER-2)

According to the Ames Research Center web site, «the Lockheed ER-2 was developed for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), to serve as a high-altitude scientific research aircraft. The ER-2 designation was first applied to NASA's version of the U-2C model. NASA has since acquired and used the U2-R or TR-1 model, but has retained the ER-2 descriptor. The ER-2 differs from the U.S. Air Force's U-2 in the former aircraft's lack of defensive systems, absence of classified electronics, completely different electrical wiring to support NASA sensors, and, of course, a different paint scheme.

The ER-2 is an extremely versatile aircraft well suited to multiple mission tasks. The ER-2 is thirty percent larger than the original U-2 with a twenty-foot-longer wingspan and a considerably increased payload over the older airframe. The aircraft has four large pressurized experiment compartments and a high-capacity AC/DC electrical system, permitting a variety of payloads to be carried on a single mission. The modular design of the aircraft permits rapid installation or removal of payloads to meet changing mission requirements. The ER-2 has a range beyond 3000 miles (4800 km); is capable of long flight duration and can operate at altitudes above 70,000 feet (21.3 km) if required. Scientific instruments flown aboard the ER-2 can be mounted in various payload areas. On a single flight, the ER-2 can carry over one ton of instruments to altitudes above 65,000 feet, and outside 95% of the Earth's atmosphere.»

This aircraft would not be as exciting or have as much demand as an SR-71. It flies at a lower altitude (though still much higher than any commercial airliner) and it is subsonic. On the other hand, this aircraft would be much more affordable, since it is current, and has a specified operating charge from Dryden of $6000/flight hour. However, it is not designed for passengers (though there is an interesting precedent, in that Joan Lunden, one of the hosts of the ABC network morning news show, took a ride in a U-2 a few years ago).

Putting a passenger in one of the NASA aircraft would involve removing equipment from the main equipment bay and replacing it with a standard ejection seat. As in the case of the SR-71, a pressure suit would be required. These modifications might cost on the order of a hundred thousand dollars, so several flights would be required to amortize the costs of this down to something reasonable (a few tens of thousands of dollars) per flight.

This is probably a more politically feasible project, because of the increased availability of the aircraft, the fact that it is relatively obsolete for military purposes, and much more operable. The Joan Lunden precedent would help, and it could serve as a test bed for a «Ship's Company» type of venture, in which a wealthy individual would charter a corporation to do flight research, purchase services from NASA at the going rate, and name himself as the researcher. While the aircraft are in use much of the time for various NASA and other government agency research projects, there are some «dead times» during which someone could use it if they were convenient to Dryden in Southern California and could go on short notice (somewhat akin to «weekend specials» offered by some airlines).

Again, such a flight would serve more as a precedent than offer any useful physiological data.


The RB-57F was the result of a early-1960s program to produce a virtually new high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft out of the Martin B-57 «Canberra» bomber. The General Dynamics Corporation had a contract for the maintenance of the RB-57D aircraft, and in 1962, with wing spar problems having grounded most of the RB-57D fleet, the USAF approached General Dynamics to see if it would be possible to make a new reconnaissance aircraft out of the B-57--one with better all-round performance, higher payload capacity, and in particular an extended fatigue life. In October of 1962, the Fort Worth Division of General Dynamics was given a contract for the development of two redesigned aircraft under the designation RB-57F.

The wing of the RB-57F was an entirely new, three-spar structure with a span of 122 feet. Extensive use was made of honeycomb sandwich panels, which had originally been developed by Convair for the B-58 Hustler supersonic bomber. All of the fuel was carried inside the wings outboard of the engines. The large wing had a marked anhedral, and had a set of ailerons inset at mid-span that were supplemented by spoilers. All control surfaces had tightly sealed gaps in order to reduce drag, and there were no wing flaps. The aircraft was fitted with larger vertical tail surfaces. These surfaces were twice as large as those of the standard B-57.

The RB-57F was powered by a pair of 18,000 lb-thrust Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-11A turbofans, which gave the RB-57F more than twice the power of its predecessors. In addition, provision was made for a 3300 lb-thrust Pratt & Whitney J60-P-9 turbojet housed in a detachable pod underneath each wing. These auxiliary engines did not have starters, and were air-started after takeoff after windmilling up to 12 percent rpm. They remained at idling RPM up to 32,000 feet altitude, where throttling control started becoming effective. Full throttle could be used at altitudes above 40,000 feet. The J60s added approximately 2500 feet to the maximum ceiling. However, the J60s could be removed for maximum range missions.

There were four underwing hardpoints, all of which could be used to carry external stores when the turbojets were not mounted. The RB-57F could carry a two-ton HTAC high-altitude reconnaissance camera. Special ELINT/SIGINT equipment could be carried in the modified nose and in the plastic wingtip sections.

The crew was two, and the cockpit layout was the same as that of the standard B-57. The cockpit was provided with a modified Lear MC-1 autopilot.

The first RB-57F flew on June 23, 1963. Such were the extent of the modifications that new serial numbers for fiscal year 1963 were assigned to the modified aircraft. Many were used by the Air Force for reconnaissance, often at altitudes of up to 65,000 feet. The Air Weather Service bought some, which were designated WB-57F in 1968, for atmospheric sampling and monitoring of nuclear tests, and research into airborne laser equipment.

Many of them have since been purchased privately as they were surplused by the military, and been given «N» numbers. It would be possible to provide high-altitude rides in this aircraft. While certifying it for commercial flight would be very difficult, if not impossible under current regulations, several have been certified for experimental flight, and so could be rented for the purpose of «research.» Flight costs would be fairly low, relative to the NASA planes already discussed--perhaps a few thousand dollars per hour. A passenger would either ride in the copilot seat, or a passenger module for multiple passengers could be constructed, with a plexiglass bottom, to hang in the bomb bay (doors open) as a «glass-bottom» high-altitude airplane. If the module had an auto-deploy chute, it could also be used as an ejection pod in an emergency. If it were designed to interface with Russian flight suits, this could result in additional cost savings.

It would be a noisy ride, but like the other aircraft, mild in g-rating, with little benefit for medical research. Of much more interest would be the precedent for opening up the FAA to allow passengers in more unconventional private aircraft (as in the parabolic flight case).

Proteus (

The last candidate for high-altitude passenger flight is the Proteus. According to the Scaled Composites' (its developer) web site, this is planned as a «twin turbofan high-altitude multi-mission aircraft, powered by Williams International FJ44-2E engines. It is designed to carry payloads in the 2000-pound class to altitudes above 60,000 feet and remain on station up to fourteen hours. Heavier payloads can be carried for shorter missions. It is intended for piloted as well as for UAV missions. Potential missions for Proteus include telecommunications, reconnaissance, atmospheric research, commercial imaging, and space launch.»

It should be noted that the primary space transportation mission envisioned by Proteus' inventor, Burt Rutan, is as the first stage for a suborbital space tourism vehicle, whose first mission will be to win the X-prize.

While the Proteus is not a high-speed aircraft (in fact it is probably the lowest-speed aircraft of any discussed in this report, because its primary mission is to simply orbit a local area at relatively low cost), it has several advantages over the government aircraft already discussed. First of all, it is an aircraft neither developed nor owned by the government, so no federal permissions are needed to use it, other than FAA approval. Second, it was designed as a commercial aircraft, in which operating cost was a fundamental design driver. It can thus be expected to offer much lower costs for space tourism experiences (though perhaps without some of the «right-stuff» mystique offered by the others). Because of its low-power jet engines, it will provide a very quiet, and much more pleasant ride than the military vehicles, offering an experience more similar to an extremely high-altitude sailplane.

On the downside, it won't be as thrilling, because it is slower, and less noisy. However, for people who simply want to view the earth from on high, and space from its edge, it could offer a very euphoric, perhaps even transcendental experience.

Cost estimates are not available at this writing, but the author would be surprised if rides couldn't be offered (assuming sufficient demand) for prices well under ten thousand dollars.

Like the other atmospheric non-parabolic aircraft, it will provide little information in the way of medical issues, but it will serve as a useful regulatory pathfinder for privately-developed space passenger vehicles to a limited degree. The degree is limited by the fact that, like parabolic aircraft, it will remain regulated by FAA/AVR, rather than AST, as a space transportation vehicle would be, at least until it is actually employed as the first stage of a suborbital vehicle, as Burt intends. It will differ from the B-57 case in that it probably will be certified for commercial applications, though not necessarily to operate under Part 135 for passenger transport.

Russian Aircraft

One other category of atmospheric trips for passenger use, which in fact is currently being offered in Russia by Incredible Adventures, are flights in high-performance fighters. One of these, the Mig-25, can offer a very thrilling trip to the edge of space, as it zooms up to 80,000 feet or higher. Unfortunately, past attempts to bring such aircraft to the United States to offer similar passenger services here have been unsuccessful, because of FAA restrictions. Thus we face the irony that the formerly communist Russia seems to be more oriented to the space tourism maket than the supposedly capitalist United States. Any legislative or policy changes made with the intent of encouraging public space travel in the U.S. should consider this situation as another area for rethinking current FAA policies. This will be addressed further in the recommendations.

Suborbital Passenger Trips

Much higher-altitude suborbital trips will open up new regimes for doing biomedical research, in that there is a longer period of weightlessness and much higher gravity levels on launch and entry. However, the duration of the weightless experience will still be too brief (a few minutes) for the longer-term aspects of space sickness to show up, and the experience, though much more thrilling, since one will actually go into space, is still medically more like parabolic flight than an extended visit to space.

While many ventures are seeking funds to build suborbital vehicles, particularly in pursuit of the X-Prize, for the purposes of this report, there is really only one practical funded candidate for near-term suborbital rides--the X-34. Lockheed-Martin's X-33, while a suborbital vehicle, would be much too costly per trip to consider for tourist applications, even if it weren't having extreme technical difficulties and program delays.


The X-34 vehicle, being built by Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) under contract to NASA, is the only near-term fully-funded vehicle that, in principal, could offer a suborbital trip. It is a research vehicle, designed to test out reusable launch vehicle ( RLV) technologies. It masses 18,000 pounds dry, with a total propellant capacity of 30,000 pounds mass. It is fifty-eight feet long, with a wingspan of twenty-eight feet. It uses liquid oxygen and kerosene as propellants, and is air launched from OSC's Lockheed L-1011 aircraft, after which it lights its rocket engine, accelerates up to Mach 8, leaves the atmosphere, attaining altitudes up to 250,000 feet (fifty miles) and then reenters and returns for a runway landing.

The system is designed for rapid (for a space transportation vehicle) turnaround. Nominally this will be two weeks, but one of the program goals is also to demonstrate the surge capability of a 24-hour turnaround. Because it is to be a test bed for operability technologies, the vehicle should have favorable costs relative to other current launchers.

The system is not currently designed to carry people, either as crew or passengers. However, it has two separate LOX tanks, and the center one could potentially be removed to provide volume for a crew capsule. This would reduce the vehicle performance substantially, but a suborbital tourist trip would not require the full Mach 8 speed. The most desirable attribute of such an experience would be the thrill of the high-gravity acceleration, the several minutes of weightlessness between engine burnout and atmosphere entry, the view of the earth from fifty miles above it, and attainment of sufficient altitude to earn one's astronaut wings. The flight profile would have to be tailored to minimize the g-loading, and the passenger would probably have to wear a g-suit, as well as a pressure suit.

Certainly the vehicle will not be available for such modifications and use prior to the end of its career as a test and vehicle and research platform, unless the modification and demodification for passenger trips can be made routine, because there will be many missions for which the full LOX capacity will be required. However, the fate of the two X-34 vehicles following the completion of the testing required for the NASA contract is unclear, and it is quite conceivable that ownership with full rights could eventually revert to OSC, either to use for whatever purposes that company desires, or to sell or lease to another operator for commercial use.

Should this occur, we will have a very interesting test case for passenger regulation, because we will have a true space transportation vehicle that is not certified by the AVR division of the FAA, but will rather be issued a launch license by AST. If this occurs prior to any of the X-Prize contenders, it will establish a legal and regulatory precedent.

In this case, as was previously discussed, AST may choose to impose additional requirements on the trip for passengers that it does not for cargo, and this choice may or may not be challenged in court, and such a challenge may or may not be successful. If AST decides to regulate it too strenuously, the business may simply not be formed, as it is already on the edge of economic feasibility. If, on the other hand, they stick to their current policy and simply review the trip for range safety, national security, etc., then the venture could move forward in developing the necessary passenger module, and integrating it into the vehicle.

This module will have to provide life support for the passengers. This will be relatively straightforward, because of the short duration of the excursion. Perhaps the biggest challenges in module design will be in coming up with a means of providing windows for the passenger(s). Since the view will be a major feature of the experience, inability to provide this feature will probably be a show stopper. Overall, the module, in order to meet the requirements, will probably cost on the order of several million dollars to develop amd manufacture (a more precise estimate than this ROM is far beyond the scope of this study).

If this estimate is in the ballpark, each ride on the vehicle will cost on the order of a million dollars or more (to recover all costs). This is a price that is potentially sustainable for a unique suborbital experience--there are many who would like a trip to space, and given the current state of the national and world economy, many who could afford to pay that much for one. The biggest question, and one that investors in such a venture would have to seriously consider, is whether or not this vehicle would be competitive with others that are developed specifically for that purpose, such as Vela Technology's Space Cruiser [tm] concept.

X-34 was designed for the specific purpose of testing specific technologies. It was not designed with the intent of providing space joy rides, though it is physically capable of that, given sufficient additional investment. It was burdened with its unique requirements, and it was done under a government contract. Experience has shown that, no matter how innovative and technically competent the contractor, government-contracted space transportation vehicles are not low cost, either in development or operationally. It is the author's opinion that any system privately funded specifically for the purpose of providing a suborbital experience would have cost structures at least an order of magnitude less than the X-34, and would satisfy that market in a far superior manner, since that would be the sole intent of the investment. It will be up to the investor to make the bet that his investment in augmenting X-34 for suborbital tourism will not be either quickly or eventually (before she can earn her money back) superceded by someone else's investment in a vehicle developed specifically for that purpose.

Orbital Passenger Trips (Space Shuttle)
Benefits and Precedents

For the near future, NASA's Space Shuttle offers the only U.S.-based transportation for passengers to low earth orbit. (The recent activity regarding a privatization of the Russian Mir space station by Amsterdam-based Mir Corporation is not considered here, because it does not require any changes in U.S. policy, other than possibly reducing pressure on the Russians by NASA and the State Department to deorbit the Mir space station.) Since the long-duration exposure to the space environment necessary to resolve some of the medical issues can only be achieved in orbit, this makes it a unique U.S. asset for answering such questions. However, there are many practical, economic and legal and political issues associated with its use for non-NASA personnel.

There are existing precedents for flying civilians on the Shuttle. In addition to Christa McAuliffe (enlisted as part of the «Teacher in Space» program), U.S. Senator Jake Garn, and U.S. Congressman Bill Nelson (the latter two of whom ostensibly flew under the auspices of «Congressional oversight»), Charlie Walker is perhaps the most applicable example of flying a civilian in space for research purposes, as previously mentioned.

Mr. Walker was an employee of McDonnell Douglas, and doing research on techniques for developing new products in a weightless environment. At that time, NASA had a policy of encouraging commercial research on the Shuttle, and allowing companies wishing to do such research to fly their own researchers as payload specialists. The company-designated individual would go through training similar to that of other (NASA) payload specialists, and would then fly on the Shuttle to perform his experiment. Charlie Walker did this twice, establishing a fairly firm precedent that has not been obviated by any explicit policy changes since those flights. Senator Glenn also trained and flew more recently as a «research subject,» though the science performed on his mission was apparently never peer reviewed.

From a medical standpoint, the Shuttle is a benign ride (relative to early US and current Russian launchers). It sustains, by design, a maximum of three gravities during both ascent and entry--an acceleration that is acceptable (albeit discomfiting) for anyone in reasonably good health. Once on orbit, it is also relatively comfortable, with a toilet (albeit one with many operational limitations), and ample room for both weightless activity and sleep, though Skylab, the first U.S. space station, was unsurpassed in this regard by either the Russian systems, or even the currently planned International Space Station ( ISS).

It is appealing to think that we will gain some new medical knowledge by flying non-astronauts for short-duration (a few days) missions. However, it is probably unrealistic, partly because we will fly far too few people to get any kind of useful statistical sampling. Also, it's unlikely that NASA would risk flying anyone who is not in good health, so any data derived from a member of the general public will be comparable to the large data base of the existing astronaut corps. Finally, someone who is possibly paying large sums of money for a once-in-a-lifetime experience may not necessarily be tolerant of intrusive medical tests and procedures (though they might be persuaded).

Rather than medical knowledge, the primary benefits of flying non-traditional astronauts on the Space Shuttle will be in terms of altering public perception, learning about crew interactions with passengers (as opposed to fellow crewmembers) who haven't trained with them extensively, and establishing and solidifying legal precedents for flying civilians on NASA vehicles.

The first benefit will make it easier both for people to think about this as a realistic possibility for themselves and as a business. The former will aid in performing more realistic market research, by providing a more valid mental framework for people to express their space tourism interests, and the latter will ease some of the current skepticism among the investment community that is currently inhibiting raising the capital necessary to develop new low-cost space transportation systems. It is important to get both potential customers and investors thinking about space as not so much about «the Right Stuff» as about «the Green Stuff.» Demonstrating that someone can actually go into space without months of training, or being a superman or superwoman, will go a good distance toward starting to change the public view of space travel in a favorable way.

Understanding interrelationships between crew and passengers, and the legal basis for accommodating the general public on government-owned/controlled space vehicles and facilities will provide planning guidance, and ease the path to eventually having commercial passenger activity on the International Space Station, whether in the government-maintained portions themselves, or in privately-funded additional modules, as have been proposed by some commercial entities.


Despite the benefits discussed above, as was pointed out previously in the section on political issues, there are practical considerations that will inhibit the use of the Shuttle by non-NASA personnel. A Space Shuttle Orbiter is a very expensive, complex, and difficult-to-replace piece of machinery, and NASA appropriately feels a great deal of responsibility to the taxpayer to ensure that it be operated in as safe a manner as possible, while also maximizing planned science returns and other mission objectives for each flight. Accordingly, great care has to be taken that anyone riding in it both have at least a basic understanding of the function of all Shuttle systems and the mission objectives, and sufficient maturity to not interfere with critical controls and switches, or get in the way. This will prevent any costly, or even disastrous, mishaps.

Given the extensive screening through which NASA puts their astronaut candidates (and literal horror stories from other providers of potentially-hazardous adventures to rich clientele, e.g., Mt. Everest guides), the agency will have legitimate concerns that a civilian getting a ride simply based on ability to pay will not be a safe passenger, either to himself, or the crew, vehicle, and mission as a whole. In light of the public reaction to the Challenger disaster, albeit fourteen years in the past, the Public Affairs Office will strenuously object to putting another citizen in the Shuttle and risking another public-relations nightmare.

NASA will have another problem in giving up seats to non-astronauts. The current astronaut corps has many members who have never flown, and given the slowdown in flight rate and ISS construction over the past few years, diminishing prospects of ever doing so. It would be difficult for NASA management to explain to them why, after the rigorous selection and training process that they have undergone, some of their seats will be sold to civilians in lieu of flying them.

Particularly, most of the planned Shuttle flights for the next few years are scheduled to be dedicated to assembly and resupply of the ISS (though some on Capitol Hill are starting to urge NASA to schedule some non- ISS related missions, anticipating further ISS program delays). Given the criticality of these missions to a taxpayer-funded program that has cost tens of billions of dollars, the agency will be particularly sensitive to any risk incurred on an assembly mission by carrying an untrained civilian, as well as the opportunity cost and risk implied by taking along someone who cannot help with the primary mission.

On the other hand, such a mission would be of even greater value to a potential space tourist, since in addition to seeing the view of earth from space, it would represent an opportunity to see a very impressive and large structure floating in space. Watching the crew work on it, with robotic arms and via extravehicular activity, would engender the same fascination that causes people to stop and look through fences to watch terrestrial construction, except on a much grander and high-tech scale. From a marketing standpoint, and customer value, an ISS assembly flight, or even a docking flight, would be able to charge a hefty premium over one that simply went into earth orbit, particularly at a lower inclination, where the passenger would not see as much of the earth passing below over the course of the mission.


There are two general means by which the limited Shuttle seats available to could be allocated to the general public. First would be by simply doing an auction, with the proceeds going either directly to NASA or into the general fund. The former would almost certainly require legislation. The other would be by having some non-government entity, either profit or non-profit, purchase some seats from the agency, and then allowing them to distribute the seats via auction, lottery, contest, or some other means.

If the latter, each of the potential methods of distribution have their advantages and drawbacks, but it is beyond the scope of this paper to go into them in detail. All of them would entail a public policy debate, and the outcome would hinge on factors such as the perception of it being a taxpayer-subsidized joy ride for the wealthy, versus a desire to democratize it, versus a means of generating more revenue for the program, and the amount of commercialization that is deemed to be acceptable for a Space Shuttle mission, and its impact on some's perceptions of our national prestige. This is a debate that is both inevitable and necessary to move on to the next stages of the development of space tourism.

In all cases it is inevitable that there would have to be some minimum criteria for the traveler, at least in terms of physical and mental health, per the concerns discussed above. Obviously, such critieria should be much less stringent than those used to select NASA astronauts, with a large fraction of the populace able to meet them. NASA's flexibility on this issue will be indicative of their seriousness in helping develop this new space market.

Also, while some minimal level of training will be required, it neither need be, nor can it be as rigorous or lengthy as that currently provided to NASA astronaut candidates and mission assignees. It need not be because the passenger will have few, if any, mission responsibilities, other than to stay out of the way and to know enough of the basics to know what not to touch, and what to do in an emergency. It cannot be, because, at least for the auction route, the type of people who can afford such an experience generally will not have months of free time available to devote to such training. One of the reasons that the popular singer/songwriter John Denver did not go into space with the Russians was not because he could not afford the price, but because he was unwilling to learn Russian and spend six months training in Russia (in fairly spartan accommodations). Clearly, while a Space Shuttle passenger will require more than the standard two-minute airline drill about how to fasten seatbelts and use the oxygen system, months should not be required to learn the basics of how to be a safe space passenger--an intense week should be sufficient.

In terms of price, based on both Shuttle costs, the historical prices charged by the Russians, and the prices being talked about by MirCorp for a visit to the Russian station, a fee of at least ten million dollars, and up to perhaps five times that, would be appropriate, and likely to find buyers, given the uniqueness of the experience. It should be noted, however, that as this paper is being finalized in early June of 2000, a few trillion dollars of wealth has evaporated from the U.S. stock markets in the past few weeks (particularly among the technical stocks, some of whose holders might be more likely to be interested in such an experience), so many who a couple of months ago would have been feeling wealthy enough to pay such a sum may no longer do so. On the other hand, there will be few enough seats for sale in the near term, so that the demand will continue to exceed the supply for some time, even at very high prices.


There are clearly a wide array of potential experiences that are available to help an embryonic space tourism business in the U.S., ranging from parabolic flight, to high-altitude flight, to suborbital rides, and trips into orbit itself, in the very near term. The barriers to such experiences are not technical, nor are they financial, per se. They are primarily engendered by the existing federal regulatory and policy framework, at the FAA and NASA, which has evolved in the absence of any anticipation of space tourism as a significant, or even minor, area of commerce. Some of these issues can be mitigated or eliminated by changes in agency policies--others will likely require legislation by Congress.

To address the market problem, it would be useful if the government could spend even a tiny fraction of the amount of money that it is presently devoting to technology development to studies that might determine the degree to which our private sector will use the technology. There is a precedent for NASA funding such studies--the Commercial Space Transportation Studies (CSTS) performed several years ago. Unfortunately, NASA funded their traditional aerospace engineering contractors to perform these studies, rather than experienced market research firms. Should NASA choose to do a follow on to these studies, focused on the public space travel and entertainment market, and performed by professional market researchers, it could have benefits on the business prospects for new space transportation systems out of all proportion to the funds currently being expended on their traditional technology studies.

If, however, in spite of the CSTS precedent, it is decided that this is an inappropriate use of NASA resources, such studies might be instead funded by another agency. For example, the Departments of Commerce and Transportation, given their responsibilites, as stated in a 1994 White House National Space Transportation Policy for «identifying and promoting innovative types of arrangements between the U.S. government and the private sector,» could encourage and nurture new industries. This could be done without Congressional action, well within the discretion of the respective department secretaries, but a specific appropriation or direction by the Congress could be helpful in spurring on such an activity.

As discussed in the section on regulatory issues, there are several areas of uncertainty in current FAA policy with regard to where space begins, who has jurisdiction over various activities, whether or not passenger vehicles will be treated differently than cargo vehicles, etc. Even less than known regulatory costs, investors abhor uncertainty as to what such costs will be. Clarification of this policy (preferably with an eye toward encouraging new markets, with a balanced approach to public safety) will be helpful in raising capital for the development of routine, low-cost reusable transportation systems.

It might be useful to revisit the area of regulation of aviation for non-transportation purposes in general, so as to allow commercial activities with unorthodox and non-certified aircraft, such as those described in this paper, or perhaps in Russian aircraft brought to the U.S. Clearly the «one size fits all» approach of the FAA is inhibiting innovation, and could be strangling a fledgling industry in the nest. The «innovation» in the Department of Transportation called for by the above-referenced federal space transportation policy might provide some guidance here.

A new regulatory category that recognizes and accepts higher-risk activities may provide more flexibility for the private sector to provide such experiences to the public domestically. It should be noted that prohibiting or overregulating them here will not prohibit or regulate them overseas. They will continue to be offered, even to American citizens who are being misguidedly «protected» by existing policy, in other countries--countries to whom the myriad benefits of these new technologies, industries and services will exclusively accrue, to our own nation's continuing detriment.

While the author doesn't necessarily endorse it, and there are potential problems with it, one interesting concept, proposed by Drs. Peter Diamandis and Patrick Collins, is to have a category of passenger known as a «qualified passenger,» who would be provided with additional information on the risks, and would sign waivers. This has a precedent with the Securities and Exchange Commission in the concept of a «qualified investor,» who can invest in private issues of stock in companies considered to be too risky for the public exchanges. Such a reevaluation of the current FAA regulatory structure could require federal legislation.

In conjunction with an easing of the regulations for parabolic flight, NASA could jump start this industry by putting their own weightless flights out to bid. This year's space launch initiative provides a very modest beginning in this direction. Such an action would demonstrate a seriousness of intent on its part to move toward privatization. To repeat: if we cannot privatize a relatively simple atmospheric activity that has been performed for forty years, in forty-year-old aircraft, we have no hope of privatizing a Space Shuttle or International Space Station, and we should recognize this reality from a policy standpoint, and not continue to fool ourselves about the prospects for such privatization.

With regard to taking passengers on the Shuttle, the space agency will have to make a fundamental choice. It can continue on, «business as usual,» in a post-Cold-War world, or it can loosen the reins on near-earth space and set private enterprise to work on it instead, refocusing itself on the farther frontiers of the Moon, Mars and other bodies of the solar system. The history of the past two decades indicates that the former approach is a road to stagnation, and one that our nation, if it truly believes that the development of space is important, can no longer afford.

The Cold War has been over for a decade. The nation must retool its space policy to accommodate itself to that fact. By taking new approaches to space, and new ways of thinking about people in space, the experiences described in this paper offer us an opportunity to develop a policy that is more attuned to the traditional American values of free enterprise, entrepreneurship, and freedom, and to start using the high frontier to create not just public jobs, but wealth unimaginable.


I would like to thank Tom Rogers, of the Sophron Foundation and Space Transportation Association, for both suggesting and funding the project that resulted in this report, his many useful suggestions for its improvement as it developed, and for his remarkable forebearance in awaiting it these many months. Hopefully, it will prove to have been worth the wait. Discussions with Dr. Antonio Elias of Orbital Sciences Corporation were helpful in evaluating the potential of the X-34, as were telephone discussions with personnel at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center on issues pertaining to civilian use of the SR-71. I also greatly appreciate reviews and constructive comments from Jeff Greason, Henry Spencer, Gary Hudson, and Jim Bennett.

  1. Patrick Collins, "The Space Tourism Industry in 2030", Azabu University, 1-17-71 Fuchinobe, Kanagawa-ken, Japan T229-8501, and, Guest Lecturer, NASDA, 20401 Hamamatsu-cho, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan 105-8060.

  2. Ivan Bekey, "Economically Viable Public Space Travel", Space Energy and Transportation, Volume 4, Numbers 1, 2, pp 1-12.

  3. "General Public Space Travel and Tourism - Volume 1 Executive Summary", NASA and STA, March 1998, NP-1998-03-11-MSFC.

  4. "General Public Space Travel and Tourism - Volume 2 Workshop Proceedings", NASA and STA, February 1999, NASA/CP-1999-209146.

  5. "CSTS - Commercial Space Transportation Study - Final Report", Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed, Martin Marietta, McDonnell Douglas, Rockwell, May 1994.

  6. 'FACT SHEET - National Space Transportation Policy', The White House, Office of Science and Technology Policy, August , 1994.

  7. Remarks as prepared for delivery - U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, 16th Annual United States Space Foundation Symposium, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Tuesday, April 4, 2000.

About the Author

This paper was researched and written by Mr. Rand Simberg, President of Interglobal. Mr. Simberg is a former program manager with Rockwell International's (now Boeing's) space divisions, and has been a leader in the entrepreneurial space tourism community since he left the mainstream aerospace industry in 1993. He holds degrees in mathematics and engineering science from the University of Michigan, and in engineering management from West Coast University.

For any questions or comments regarding this paper, please contact Mr. Simberg at (307) 739-1296, or at

R Simberg, 2000, "Near-Term Prospects For Space Tourism", The Sophron Foundation. June 8, 2000. Copyright © Interglobal Space Lines, Inc., 2000.
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