13 November 1998
Reports - Vehicles (Good)
Space Tourism Endorsed at ESA Conference
ESA's "Explospace" Hints at Change of Policy
by Patrick Collins
At ESA's Workshop on Space Exploration and Resources Exploitation (ExploSpace) held in Sardinia in October 20-22, there were sessions on a variety of longer-term possibilities in space, including Space Solar Power, Space Mining, Exploration, and Business & Financing. In the face of growing recognition of the potential of space tourism a session was also held on "Access to Space, Space Tourism and Public Outreach" in which three papers addressed the subject of space tourism seriously.

Dietrich Koelle of TCS TransCost Systems made a presentation on "Reusable Launch Vehicles - A Multiple Challenge for Europe". Designing a vehicle for passenger carrying requires setting operating cost targets from the start - the ultimate test for "cost engineering" which Dr Koelle has championed for years. (But we should not forget that this is no more than aircraft or truck manufacturers do.)

M Reichert of the German space agency DLR, which has to date given more attention to space tourism than other European government space agencies, spoke on "The Future of Space Tourism" which summarised study efforts so far and made positive recommendations that the subject should continue to be studied.

A third presentation on "Space Tourism - The key to Low Cost Access to Space" was made by David Ashford of Bristol Spaceplanes Ltd, at ESA's invitation, in which he explained the economic importance of space tourism in providing the large-scale launch market that is essential to reduce launch costs, and outlined a low-risk development strategy for two-stage horizontal-take-off passenger carrying vehicles. David Ashford is Europe's longest-standing space tourism researcher, and is the promoter of "Ascender" a leading candidate for the "X-Prize".

Future Change of Direction?

At the closing session on the last day, Angelo Atzei of ESA gave a summary of the main conclusions on a single OHP foil. It included a list of future space exploitation activities, and put Power from Space and Space Tourism ahead of Helium 3 Mining on the Moon and Asteroid Mining in attractiveness. This is surely right. If successful, the two former activities would generate sales revenues directly from customers on the Earth; and if profits on these financial flows could repay the investment in the projects, they will grow spontaneously as business activities (though they can't start without some initial investment.)

By contrast, the other two activities are economically secondary - the value of Helium 3 depends on getting nuclear fusion electricity generation going (which is still decades away at best), while extra-terrestrial mining depends on having a market already in space since it's not going to be economical to sell materials directly to Earth in the foreseeable future. The best chance is that space tourism is going to provide this market, as explained further here.
It was also indicated that in future ESA's studies of reusable launch systems (under the FESTIP program to date) will include space tourism. This is very desirable, since if you design a vehicle for passenger-carrying (rather than satellite launching) from the start, you make a radically different design. That's why passenger vehicles are never going to develop spontaneously as a result of space agencies' current work designing satellite launchers.

Note that, if this shift in policy occurs, it will be in direct contrast to the position in 1996, when an ESA study on the future of space activities until 2020 did not even include space tourism. How could ESA spend millions on a study of future space activities, and miss "...the next large, new area of commercial space activity" ( AIAA) - while tiny, self-financing Space Future sees it clearly? Well, isn't that what always happens when you rely on a government monopoly to do something for you?

Such changes may seem only small straws in the wind, but they are telling signs that Space Future and our allies are winning the argument. Space agencies' strategy has been to ignore Space Tourism (and Power from Space) for as long as they can. If ever they are obliged to say something they're forced to agree that it is feasible and economically promising: the victory of economics over politics, which has been the major factor in making space policy decisions in the past. Such an initial change may seem slight - since ESA funding of reusable launch vehicle research is barely 0.2% of its budget - NOT a serious effort! However, the consequences are going to be momentous, since passenger space travel is unquestionably set to become the major activity in space - almost certainly within 20 years.

The next step is to get some action. And if ESA was concerned to benefit taxpayers, research contracts should be given to those researchers and companies who have been right about space tourism over recent years - and not just to the big aerospace contractors who have been wrong. That would be Bristol Spaceplanes Ltd, Space Tours GmbH, Technical University of Berlin, TCS-TransCostSystems, Bournemouth University - and how about Space Future too? We'll see.

Note that ESA's conversion (or at least the start of it) follows the same pattern as in the USA. Ignored by the "mainstream" US space industry for decades, the feasibility and potential economic attractiveness of space tourism have finally been endorsed during 1998 in ajoint report by NASA and the US Space Transportation Association (STA), and in a Working Group Report published by the American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics (AIAA). Welcome aboard.
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Patrick Collins 13 November 1998
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