The future of the space industry is a 27-square-mile piece of desert in New Mexico near the White Sands Missile Range, about an hour's drive from the nearest city, Las Cruces. The skies are clear 320 days of the year--ideal for flight--and the only mark of civilization is a largely barren rocket launchpad. The idea is that civilian passengers from around the world will arrive by plane and depart straight upward into outer space. "I've always been a space nut," says Gov. Bill Richardson, who recently broke ground on the $225 million Spaceport America, which counts Virgin mogul Richard Branson among its investors. "On commercial space travel, I want us to be first."
The next space race is underway. The market for commercial space tourism is expected to generate more than $1 billion in annual revenue by 2020, according to a study released in June by Research Reports International, a market-research firm based in Evergreen, Colo. Billionaire entrepreneurs like Branson and Microsoft's Paul Allen are looking to fill that demand, partnering with governments to build launching pads and training facilities around the globe, and thrill seekers are already lining up to buy tickets. While most of the world's 35 functioning spaceports are controlled by governments, at least eight private ones are in the planning or construction stages, from Singapore to Sweden. "The market is wide open for private players," says Steven Morris, president of Research Reports International.
It sure is. Futron consulting forecasts that the annual market for suborbital flights alone will grow to 15,000 passengers paying $700 million in revenue by 2021. Companies like Space Adventures of Richmond, Va., and Branson's Virgin Galactic are book-ing suborbital tours that will offer a few minutes of weightlessness and a brief view of the horizon against a black backdrop. Virgin, which hopes to launch as early as 2008, has already sold 150 guaranteed seats at $200,000 apiece, and taken refundable deposits from 38,000 customers in 126 countries. A launch into orbit or to the International Space Station will cost much more, likely around $20 million, or what space-travel companies now charge tycoons to orbit with the Russian cosmonauts.
With entrepreneurs planning more and cheaper flights, the demand for launchpads and tourist-training facilities is expected to soar. The Federal Aviation Administration is reviewing spaceport proposals from states including California, Wisconsin and Texas. In June it approved a license for a spaceport built on a former military base in Oklahoma.
Virgin Galactic has chosen the New Mexico spaceport as its headquarters. Officials speculate that the facility will be built partially underground with shops, restaurants and waiting areas. Virgin plans eventually to open new launchpads in other areas of the world. It is currently negotiating with the British Royal Air Force to use its Lossiemouth airbase in northern Scotland, which has a long runway, low population and controlled air traffic. It's also looking into using a rocket range in Kiruna, Sweden, that could give passengers a "spectacular view of the Arctic Circle," says Virgin Galactic president William Whitehorn.
Other countries have also caught rocket fever. Developers in Singapore and the United Arab Emirates are bent on adding spaceports to their existing economic hubs. Singapore is planning a $115 million facility funded by Space Adventures and its partner, Sheik Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Crown Prince of Ras al-Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates, as well as some private investors. The port, to be located next to Singapore's Changi airport, will function as a base for suborbital flights and as an astronaut-training facility. It will offer zero-gravity flights, high-altitude jet rides, centrifuge rides and space simulations, along with a public education and interactive visitor center. "Singapore developed as a port country," says Michael Lyon, project manager of the Spaceport Singapore project. "Moving into space is a natural evolution for them."
The spaceport being planned for the United Arab Emirates, located in Ras al-Khaimah, less than an hour's drive from Dubai, will be smaller than the Singapore and New Mexico sites. Sheik Qasimi has committed $30 million of the expected $100 million cost of the project. The deal is part of Ras al-Khaimah's development program to build hotels and shopping centers, improve the airport and attract industrial and commercial firms in the area.
Despite all the hype, the space-tourism business is no sure thing. The private-launch industry was booming in the 1990s, but collapsed because demand for satellite launchers never materialized. Until the ticket prices are lowered, space tourism will be confined to the superrich. But "that's kind of like saying the computers that people bought in 1978 were only extravagant items for the rich," counters Space Adventures CEO Eric Anderson. With luck, the new tourism boom will put space within reach of the ordinary millionaire.