Space tourism race heats up

Richard Branson's new rival in the space-tourism business has a radically different idea about how to turn the stratosphere into a top destination. Business 2.0 reports.

By Geoff Keighley, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Jim Benson's ship is called the Dream Chaser, and here's the dream he's chasing: a 50 percent profit margin on revenue of $200 million by 2015 from putting tourists into suborbital space.

He also wants to beat the mighty Richard Branson into this market by several months.

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That goal may sound as ridiculous as the nascent space tourism business itself, but don't count either out just yet. The FAA sees suborbital flights becoming a $700 million business, with 15,000 passengers a year, by 2021; Benson's boast, then, may be on the conservative side. (Branson's Virgin Galactic says it will start turning a profit in 2011.)

And while Benson, 62, isn't as wealthy or as well-known as Branson, he is a veteran entrepreneur who has already sent products into space.

Benson is the founder and majority shareholder of SpaceDev, which manufactures microsatellites and parts for NASA's Mars rovers. It also helped design the revolutionary engine that powered Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne, the first commercial spacecraft, into the history books in 2004.

Now Benson and Rutan are rivals, divided by a bitter public feud over who should get credit for that engine. Rutan is building five copies of SpaceShipTwo for the Virgin Galactic venture, which claims that it will be conducting test flights in 2008 and flying passengers in 2009 at $200,000 a pop.

Benson founded Benson Space, based in Poway, Calif., with the express aim of getting there first. In the first five years of operation, he says, he can get the ticket price down to just $50,000.

Benson and Branson represent two radically different ideas about how to get to space. SpaceShipTwo, like its predecessor, rides under the belly of a plane called the White Knight, which slowly gains altitude before its payload takes off.

The Dream Chaser is a bullet-shaped spaceship that launches vertically, based on designs by the U.S. Air Force and NASA. Powered by six of SpaceDev's engines, it will carry tourists to space in just 15 minutes.

Benson says, "You aren't circling around the atmosphere for two and a half hours trying to get altitude before you go to space," as you would be on SpaceShipTwo.

Rutan, for his part, snipes back at the Dream Chaser design. "The most dangerous operation of a rocket is at low altitude, where you can't abort motor operation," he says.

Virgin has a strong lead in the cash race, with $21 million in deposits and bookings for 200 passengers. Rutan's development is funded to the tune of $250 million. As of May, Benson was talking to four billionaires who were each interested in cutting him a $50 million check.

The Dream Chaser's advantage: It's already designed for the next frontier, orbital tourism. Rutan will have to build a new orbital craft, SpaceShipThree. So if Benson doesn't win this round, it's not the end of the race. Top of page

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