Hurtling into the space tourism industry
Space Adventures is leaping ahead of well-known rivals in the race to launch regular Joes into space.
A note from Erick Schonfeld: After six years of writing Future Boy, I'm handing the reins to my colleague Chris Taylor to focus on features for the magazine and my B2Day blog, which you can also subscribe to by e-mail or RSS. Taylor shares my interest in the Internet and new media, but he's also interested in other boundaries of technology, like space, the subject of his first Future Boy column.
SAN FRANCISCO (Business 2.0 Magazine) - The mantra of the bubble era was "build it and they will come." Telecom carriers spent billions putting fiber-optic lines in the ground, anticipating ever-increasing Internet traffic, and Amazon.com splashed huge chunks of cash on building warehouses around the world, counting on a flood of new online shoppers. It was, and remains, an extraordinarily risky move, and you don't hear the phrase a lot these days.
But now the get-big-fast play is back, and in a surprising new market: space tourism.
Vienna, Virginia-based Space Adventures has announced plans to build a spaceport in Singapore, less than a month after it announced earlier plans to build one in the United Arab Emirates. From the two spaceports, it plans to hurl its Russian-made, five-person space planes into suborbital space.
The Singapore spaceport will be built near the Changi airport, at a cost of $115 million (paid by Space Adventures and a local consortium of backers). The other, costing $265 million is being built by the UAE government at Ras Al-Khaimah airport by 2008. And on Monday, Space Adventures signed up its first would-be suborbital tourist, a UAE national.
Big names in space
The space tourism industry's revenues are expected to top $1 billion by 2021, according to Futron, a Maryland-based aerospace consultancy. And it's a measure of how fast things are moving in this nascent market that Space Adventures barely got a single mention in Business 2.0's recent cover story about business opportunities in space. We told you about Richard Branson and Burt Rutan's plans to launch Virgin Galactic flights from spaceports under construction in New Mexico and California, also starting in 2008. And we told you that Amazon.com's (Research) Jeff Bezos, Mr. Get-Big-Fast himself, is building a spaceport in West Texas for the space vehicles that his mysterious new startup, Blue Origin, is constructing.
But now Space Adventures has vaulted over all three famous names in the new space race, the goal of which is to part wealthy would-be astronauts from their money. (Space Adventures' tickets from the UAE and Singapore to sub-orbit will cost $100,000, half the price of a ride on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo.)
For a company to have one spaceport is a big enough deal; to have two looks like bragging. But then Space Adventures has always gone out of its way to look serious about space tourism. Neither Branson nor Bezos have Buzz Aldrin and seven former Shuttle astronauts on his board. Nor can they boast that they have actually sent tourists into space already. Indeed, the eight-year-old Space Adventures is the only outfit that's ever sold a space tourism package.
Remember the uber-rich businessmen -- Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth, and Gregory Olson -- who spent ten days aboard the International Space Station, at a cost of $20 million each? That was thanks to Space Adventures, which owns the rights to sell seats aboard Russia's Soyuz rockets. The company just signed up Japanese Internet entrepreneur Daisuke Enomoto, better known as Dice-K, for the next trip.
Going to sub-orbit, of course, is not nearly as exciting as sending people to the ISS. But at $100,000 a ticket, you can send a heck of a lot more of them.
Eric Anderson, Space Adventures' CEO, is banking on between 5,000 and 10,000 space tourists a year. With 800 billionaires and more than 20 million millionaires in the world, that's actually a pretty conservative estimate, especially considering opinion polls showing that up to 40 percent of us would go into space if it were possible. Even non-millionaires can join in the fun. If you're on a budget, the company will fly you 80,000 feet up in a Mig-25 fighter jet -- far enough to see the curvature of the Earth -- for a mere $24,000.
Tickets to the edge of space
Sub-orbit is, technically, the boundary of space. The sky turns black and you turn weightless. On both Anderson's and Branson's flights, you'll get to float out of your seat for a few minutes and call yourself an astronaut, effectively joining the world's most exclusive club. Who cares that at 62 miles up, you've barely punched the edge of the atmosphere, or that your craft is a plane that couldn't go all the way to orbit if it tried?
Space experts describe the quick sub-orbital arcs of SpaceShipTwo and Space Adventures' similar spaceplane as "reverse bungee jumps," and it's an apt analogy from an entrepreneurial perspective, too. Bungee jumps may only last a few seconds, but they're big business because of the heart-pounding, time-stopping thrill factor.
"Space tourism will be a significant portion of the overall travel and tourism industry over the next 20 to 25 years," says Anderson.
All the more reason for Bezos, Branson and Anderson to get big fast. The more spaceports they build, the faster they can process those thrill-hungry millionaires -- and establish themselves as the leading brands of the business long before the rest of the entrepreneurial world has woken up to the opportunity.
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