Long before Virginia-based space tourism company Space Adventures became synonymous with flying millionaires to the International Space Station, the company planned to open the market for suborbital space tourism. Today the company announced a partnership that returns it to its suborbital origins.
Speaking at the International Space Development Conference in Chicago, Space Adventures president and CEO Eric Anderson announced that the company is partnering with Armadillo Aerospace, the Texas-based small aerospace company founded by famed game developer John Carmack, to develop a suborbital vehicle to carry customers to at least 100 kilometers altitude. The partnership, initially announced last month, is still in its earliest stages: both Anderson and Carmack said that the design of the vehicle is still to be determined, and they set no timetable for beginning flights.
Anderson did note that the suborbital flights will feature the same key elements of an orbital launch, merely in a condensed–and less expensive–fashion. “There are three highlights of the experience” of flying in space, Anderson said: the launch, weightlessness, and the ability to see Earth from space. “Those three items are all components of the experience that you will have when you fly with us and our partner.”
Space Adventures will face some strong competition for the still-emerging suborbital space tourism market, most notably Virgin Galactic, which is currently flight-testing its SpaceShipTwo vehicle and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. XCOR Aerospace is also developing a rocket-powered aircraft, called Lynx. Armadillo’s vehicles, by comparison, take off and land vertically. One selling point of the Space Adventures/Armadillo Aerospace venture is price: they plan on charging $102,000 a flight, compared to the $200,000 currently charged by Virgin Galactic.
Space Adventures, founded in the late 1990s, had its roots in suborbital tourism, on the belief such flights were just a couple years away. “We didn’t have any idea at the time that we would be fortunate enough to be able to launch private citizens to orbit before suborbital flights” by selling seats on Soyuz flights to the ISS. Now, he said, was the “right time” to go back to suborbital as Armadillo’s capabilities evolved to the point where a suborbital vehicle really could be flying in a couple years.
For Carmack, the partnership is an opportunity to accelerate his company’s work and focus it more on suborbital vehicles, after recent work that ranged from developing rocket-powered airplanes for the Rocket Racing League to technology development projects for NASA. He said the Space Adventures funding, coupled with more investment out of his pocket, will allow his company to double its current pace of development and keep it focused on spaceflight. “I want to build spaceships,” he said. “I want to be taking people to space.”