Despite its poor track record with rocket planes, NASA remains a serious long-term competitor. But the agency’s somewhat leisurely timetable has left the field wide-open for the private sector. And excitement about the potential for small companies to actually produce a reusable rocket craft is growing. An X-Prize victory by one of them would dispel skepticism and jump-start investment too. “It’s a psychological step,” says Rand Simberg, an aerospace engineer and consultant. “The little companies are going back and doing it like it should have been done in the first place.”
Indeed, anticipating the ability of small companies to blaze new paths, one firm is booking tourist flights on rocket planes that exist today only on paper. Space Adventures, of Arlington, VA, already sends tourists on zero-gravity airplane flights in Russia, and it arranged Russian space flights-costing $20 million apiece-to the International Space Station for U.S. businessman Dennis Tito in 2001 and South African tycoon Mark Shuttleworth last year. The company has contracted for 600 Xerus flights and taken deposits from more than 100 customers.
“We’ve been impressed with Xcor’s team of people and their ability to produce actual flying hardware and to carry out demonstrations on a low budget,” says Eric Anderson, president of Space Adventures. And though Anderson initially feared that Columbia’s frightening demise might cause some of his customers to think twice about space travel, none had asked for a refund in the first few days after the shuttle was lost-a fact he says shows a strong human commitment to space flight. Instead of scaring people off, he adds, what happened to Columbia “will serve as a wake-up call. Ten years from now, people will feel safer, will be safer” going into orbit as a result of improvements that will inevitably result from the investigation of the accident.
Space Adventures’ backing of Xcor and other rocket companies provides a synergy that might be crucial for realizing the decades-old visions of reusable rockets, says Bruce Lusignan, an electrical engineer at Stanford University and director of the Center for International Cooperation in Space, a worldwide consortium of universities. He says space-related tourism revenues could finance a new generation of tourist-oriented launch vehicles, and “that might be the core to building the capability up. That might be the right way to go.” And that means the EZ-Rocket-that unimposing test vehicle at the vast Mojave Airport-just might end up being the first PC of a new space age.