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Is Space For Sale?

14 March 2007

Space tourism is no longer science fiction, at least for those who can afford it. Private companies around the world are now competing to become leaders in commercial space activities. For producer Valer Gergely, Jim Bertel reports this space race is creating new industries.

Conquering space was once an ideological contest between two rival world powers during the Cold War. Today, private companies compete to profit from space.

Eric C. Anderson, president and CEO of Space Adventures, the first company to send paying passengers into space, believes the new space race is a positive development.

"From the first days of spaceflights, of course, the race was between the Soviet Union and the U.S., to be the first to put a person into orbit, to go first to the moon,” he explains. “Now the space race is motivated by profit, which is even better because it means it will sustain itself beyond the ups and downs of politics."

Anderson believes space is an incredible new frontier for business. Space Adventures has earned over $120 million in sales for offering commercial seats to the public.

"When you find millions of people who want to go into space and we find a way to be able to take them there, that creates the opportunity for space entrepreneurs,” he says.

Space Adventures began receiving commercial services from the Russian Space Agency after the collapse of the Soviet Union. "In the early 1990s things changed in the former Soviet Union of course. The motivation of maintaining their space capability had to rely more on commercial activities."

Space Adventures’ clients pay $20 million each for their voyage. Future travelers may even take a spacewalk for an additional $15 million.

U.S. software developer Charles Simonyi will travel to the International Space Station on a Soyuz spacecraft in April. He has been training for his flight in Star City, Russia.

"I think that commercial 'anything' is a good direction,” says Simonyi. “If you are looking at the communication network of the world having cell phones, having the commercial Internet, they increased the capacity of our communication immensely relatively to what governments can accomplish on their own. I think spaceflights will eventually be the same way."

In the past the US space agency, NASA, has not provided much opportunity for commercial activities. That may change under the current administration, says Doug Cooke, NASA's Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration.

"NASA is not in the position, from the government point of view, to sell opportunities to others. But we have been encouraged to find these opportunities, to find opportunities for international participation, commercial participation, to expand the sphere of influence of commerce from Earth to lower orbit and beyond."

Other companies, such as Virgin Galactic, are trying to gain their share of the market by developing their own spaceship for paying passengers. Virgin Galactic's spaceship designer Burt Rutan believes space should not be accessible only to the elite. "I do want to get to the moon in my lifetime. And I want to see affordable travel to the moon in my lifetime."

Virgin Galactic plans to fly its first passengers on a suborbital flight in the next two years for $200,000 per person and build a spaceport in New Mexico. So far more than 50,000 people have shown interest in becoming space tourists. The competition is a clear sign that a new industry is being created.

Last year Space Adventures participated in the World Travel Market announcing plans to offer private missions to the far side of the Moon -- for $100 million.

"The participants will be able to come within 100 kilometers of the far side of the Moon,” said Anderson. “Replicating the lunar missions that were done in the 1960s -- the Apollo mission, for example. The beauty of this that we are able to use the existing Soyuz spacecraft with very minimum modifications."

Anderson believes that 30 to 40 years from now it will be within the reach for the great percentage of the world population to travel to space. "What we are doing today is much more than just rich people buying trips to space. It is actually the catalyst that will open up the future where all of us will be able to go to space."

Some Russian experts believe the moon could also be a resource for fuel used by nuclear fusion power plants. Based on some estimates, the isotope helium-3 reserve on the moon could provide enough energy for Earth for hundreds of years. The process, however, would take decades to develop.

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