Axiom Space has long-term plans to develop a commercial space station for tourism and other applications, but wants to start with a module on the ISS. (credit: Axiom Space)
by Jeff Foust
Earlier this month the Wall Street Journal reported that SpaceX would not fly tourists around the Moon as the company announced last year. Those plans, a company spokesman said, were on hold until at least mid-2019 “and likely longer.”
That news was not surprising because SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk said as much four months earlier. In a call with reporters on the eve of the first Falcon Heavy launch in February, he said there were no plans to human rate that rocket, which would be required for the circumlunar mission the company announced a year earlier. Only if development of its even larger Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) was significantly delayed, he said, would SpaceX reconsider human-rating the Falcon Heavy and using it for applications like lunar trip.
The news was also not surprising in a different dimension: it’s hardly unexpected to hear that a space tourism venture of one kind or another is facing delays. This Thursday marks the 14th anniversary of the first suborbital spaceflight by Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne vehicle, piloted by Mike Melvill to an altitude just above 100-kilometer Kármán Line in the skies above Mojave, California. At the time the flight appeared to open a new era in commercial spaceflight in general, and suborbital spaceflight specifically.
Yet, the two SpaceShipOne flights that followed in late September and early October 2004 to win the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE remain the last commercial suborbital spaceflights with people on board. Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are getting ever closer to flying people on their suborbital vehicles, but the future is taking its time getting here.
The reality of legislation
Last month’s International Space Development Conference (ISDC), the annual conference of the National Space Society, featured a panel discussion titled “From Legislation to Reality: Space Tourism 2004–2018.” The choice of title was interesting given that, after 14 years, space tourism was not quite “reality” in the sense that people were regularly going to space, suborbitally or otherwise, despite all the promises of the past.
Indeed, much of the panel discussion focused on the immediate aftermath of SpaceShipOne’s X PRIZE victory, which helped win passage of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 to provide a more certain regulatory regime. That bill was backed by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a longtime commercial space advocate in Congress.
“I was told that the Commercial Space Act of 2004 was not going to pass,” Rohrabacher recalled on the panel. “When I put this bill together, I was told, ‘You’re stepping on too many toes.’” He said he was told by individuals he did not name that the bill lacked the votes to pass and he would “embarrassed by losing.”
The bill was being considered by the House under a process known as “suspension of the rules” that allows for expedited consideration without amendments, but also requires a two-thirds majority approve it. Rohrabacher said his own staff was skeptical the bill could clear that threshold.
What saved the act, he said, was a conversation he had on the House floor with then-Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), who chaired the Hispanic Caucus. The two disagreed vigorously on immigration issues but managed to find common ground on the act after Rohrabacher made his case that the act would support a growing commercial space industry that would create new jobs.
“When the vote came, Silvestre Reyes had gotten me nine votes from the Hispanic Caucus and I won by three,” Rohrabacher recalled.
That bill enacted a number of changes intended to support the development of commercial human spaceflight, from treating suborbital vehicles as launch vehicles to be licensed, rather than aircraft that required certification, to the “informed consent” regime where those who agreed to fly on such vehicles accepted the risk inherent in spaceflight.
“It is so important,” said George Nield, who recently retired from the FAA after serving nearly a decade as associate administrator for commercial space transportation. He identified three key factors in the bill, including the use of launch licensing and establishment of the informed consent regime as well as the “brilliant idea” of retaining the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation’s dual mandate to both regulate the industry to ensure public safety as well as “encourage, facilitate, and promote” the industry.
“If the only thing you’re charged to do is ensure safety, it is really easy to set up a process that will make sure you’re safe by not letting you fly,” he said.
“We have established a regulatory process that is predictable and supportive of industry,” said Greg Autry, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business who served on the Trump administration’s NASA transition team.
And, from that perspective, those legislative efforts have been successful: regulations have not been a barrier to commercial human spaceflight, as some feared might be the case in 2004. However, while regulatory certainty might have been a necessary condition for the emergence of the industry, it hasn’t been a sufficient condition: technical and financial obstacles have been far greater, causing the delays in the development of some vehicles, and the failure of other companies, like Armadillo Aerospace, Rocketplane, and, most recently, XCOR Aerospace.
The two main companies still in the suborbital human spaceflight industry, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, say they’re making progress towards flying people into space, perhaps later this year, but haven’t shown much evidence of being in a hurry to do so.
Twelve hours before the ISDC space tourism panel, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos was on the same stage, being queried about, among other things, the company’s progress with the New Shepard suborbital vehicle (see “Bezos and humanity’s future beyond Earth”, The Space Review, June 4, 2018). He offered little in the way of new developments with that vehicle, which flew most recently April 29.
“I don’t know the ticket price yet. We haven’t decided,” he said, an approach that stands in stark contrast to Virgin Galactic, which has been selling SpaceShipTwo seats for more than a decade. He didn’t state when commercial flights of the vehicle with customers on board would begin but was optimistic it would fly frequently, gaining experience for the engine that will also power the upper stages of Blue Origin’s New Glenn orbital launch vehicle.
“So many people have asked me, why do this suborbital mission?” he said. “The reason is practice. We’re going to be able to fly that vehicle so often, and that engine, the BE-3 engine, is the same engine that is going to be on our orbital vehicle. It will get so much exercise and practice, it’s going to be the most reliable liquid hydrogen engine in the world.”
Shortly after the conference, Virgin Galactic performed a second powered test flight of its second SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane, again above the Mojave Air and Space Port. This flight set speed (Mach 1.9) and altitude (nearly 35 kilometers) records for the vehicle, but still leaves it far short of space.
“Seeing Unity soar upwards at supersonic speeds is inspiring and absolutely breathtaking,” Sir Richard Branson said in a May 29 statement after the flight. “We are getting ever closer to realizing our goals. Congratulations to the whole team!”
That statement didn’t give a schedule for when the company would achieve those goals, but in an earlier interview with BBC Radio 4 suggested it would be some time in the next year. “I think over the next 12 months I hope to become an astronaut, and I think we’ve got a very exciting time ahead,” he said referring to his long-standing plans to be on the first commercial SpaceShipTwo flight.
Still seeking orbit
Space tourism, though, didn’t start with the flights of SpaceShipOne 14 years ago. Tourists flew on orbital missions to the International Space Station as far back as Dennis Tito’s trip to the station in April 2001. (Arguably even earlier, depending on how you classify some commercial trips to the Mir space station in the 1990s.) But none have flown since Guy Laliberté’s flight to the ISS in the fall of 2009, and the only serious attempt to do so in that time was a plan for singer Sarah Brightman to go in the 2015, cancelled a few months before the flight for “personal family reasons.”
The idea of orbital space tourism, or even space hotels, has not been completely forgotten, though. With the administration’s plans for ending direct federal funding of the ISS in 2025 now being debated, it’s giving new life to commercial space station concepts where tourism might be one of several revenue streams.
Among them is Axiom Space, a Houston-based company that announced in 2016 plans for private space stations, starting with a module on the ISS. The company has kept a low profile since then, but last week Axiom announced it was offering flights to the ISS starting as soon as 2020 for $55 million per seat on a ten-day flight. That came after a New York Times profile of the company, with the unfortunate headline “The Rich Are Planning to Leave This Wretched Planet.”
In an interview last week, Michael Suffredini, the former NASA ISS program manager who is now CEO of Axiom, said that those initial missions would go to the ISS on a commercial crew vehicle from a company that Axiom has a “verbal agreement” with. The “private astronaut” (the term the company prefers to tourist) would fly with a professional astronaut, and the mission would bring with it all of the logistics needed to support them for the mission to minimize the impact on ISS operations.
However, Axiom would like to add a module to the ISS to support more commercial missions, including private astronauts and research. In 2016, NASA seems ready to begin the process of holding a competition to award a docking port on the station to a commercial module developer. But after receiving responses of interest, that process slowed down, and NASA has yet to issue a formal solicitation for that port.
Suffredini said the change in administrations likely slowed that effort as NASA waited to make sure they would be in sync with any new White House policies. He’s worried that NASA’s ongoing competition for commercial market studies as part of its LEO commercialization effort will further slow things down.
“If there’s an urgency in the government at all to allow ISS to retire gracefully, we need to pick up the pace on the port award,” he said. He called on NASA to hold the competition in parallel with the commercial market studies, rather than waiting until after those studies are completed at the end of the year.
“It takes about four years of running hard to get our module built,” he said. That means that, if NASA waits until some time in 2019 to hold a competition for a docking port, Axiom’s module would not be in place until about 2024, near the end of the station’s lifetime. Holding the competition now, he argued, could move that up to 2023.
Axiom’s efforts, and those by other companies (like Orion Span, which announced earlier this plans to launch a commercial space station in 2022 despite an apparent lack of funding, facilities, or contracts) to serve space tourism have been met with skepticism. At a hearing last month of the House Science Committee, Bhavya Lal of the Institute for Defense Analysis’ Science and Technology Policy Institute presented results of a recent market study that concluded that it would be difficult for the business case for a commercial space station to close.
“Overall, our analysis showed that it is unlikely that a commercial space station would be economically viable by 2025,” she said in her testimony. That could, she noted, make it difficult for companies to raise money. “Venture capitalists we spoke to indicated that projected revenue streams are too far in the future and too uncertain to warrant making significant investments today.”
Space tourism was not one of the most promising markets identified in the study, which instead pointed to manufacturing of “exotic” optical fibers, on-orbit satellite assembly, and hosting “sovereign astronauts” from other national space agencies as likely the most lucrative, even with considerable uncertainty about their size.
Suffredini was skeptical of that market study skepticism. “It’s not unexpected for study groups to say that they don’t see a market because they don’t know the market to begin with,” he said, citing as one example the rise of businesses on the Internet that could not be predicted in its early days.
That said, Axiom is not betting entirely on space tourism for its business case. Suffredini said the company is exploring several markets for both a commercial ISS module and standalone station. He suggested some, like on-orbit manufacturing, could one day dwarf private astronaut trips.
Axiom is not building its ISS module yet but is working on its design while seeking to line up private astronaut customers and other users. The company has raised a small amount of money—Suffredini declined to say how much other than “millions”—to support the company until NASA does award a port on the ISS for the module. At that point, he said the company will make “the big raise” of funding needed to start work on the module itself.
Suffredini said that there has been some interest from potential private astronauts, even before the company’s announcement last week and other media coverage. Their first potential customer, though, plans on waiting on signing a contract until after commercial crew providers make their first test flights. Those test flights, like so much of the commercial human spaceflight industry, are running behind schedule.