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Much of that momentum has been going in the direction of Virgin Airlines owner Sir Richard Branson. He’s just commissioned five versions of Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, tricked out with luxury seats, and announced his next product: Virgin Galactic. Anyone who buys a ticket requires a week’s worth of training for a suborbital three-hour cruise, at a cost of $217,000 (but you probably at least get peanuts on that flight). Branson’s announcement stole so much X Prize thunder that you’d suspect he’d pioneered the idea of space tourism. Putting aside PAN AM’s hubristic foray, that honor also belongs to another Diamandis company: Space Adventures. Originally founded to broker Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth’s $20 million trips to the International Space Station, Space Adventures soon started selling galactic joy rides of their own. Their trips cost $98,000 and they already have more than a hundred deposits.
“This is just the beginning,” says Diamandis. “In three to five years the price of a suborbital flight will drop below $30,000. In five to eight years, that’ll be the price of an orbital flight. I think we’ll be sending visitors to the moon by 2020.”
In fact, Canadian Arrow’s Geoff Sheerin is counting on the same kind of rapid off-world exodus Diamandis is forecasting. “We’re building the world’s first civilian astronaut training program,” says Sheerin. “We have the right stuff for sale.” Up in London, Ontario, where the program is located, he’s designed a training program complete with centrifuges so you can get the hang of skin-peeling-off-your-face G-force; trainers so you can learn how to straighten out of a three-axis spin without puking all over his spaceship; and a dunker tank because his V-2 design requires a splash landing in the Great Lakes. Doors open for business sometime next year.
You may be wondering where all these space cowboys are going to sleep. Not a problem. Bob Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, has built an inflatable space hotel. The idea originally came from NASA, which quickly abandoned it, deciding instead to spend taxpayer money on the ill-conceived sardine can known as the International Space Station — a decision many feel was designed to spread the wealth throughout the entire defense community. Bigelow simply picked up where NASA left off, and his finished product came off the line at a cost of about $200 million — not bad when you consider that by 2010 NASA estimates the cost of the space station at $50 billion.
Bigelow’s got two different inflatable habitats, small and large, and a deal in place with the Russians to use converted Soviet missiles, minus the nuclear warheads, to launch his mini-hotel in November 2005 and his maxi-hotel in April 2006. And just to make sure he’s got plenty of guests, Bigelow’s also announced a prize of his own: a $50 million reward for the first team to put a spaceship into orbit twice in two weeks.
If this mentality sounds familiar, it’s because prizes have a long history in aerospace. Diamandis’ original X Prize idea was modeled on the 1919 Orteig Prize, a $25,000 paycheck for the first person to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. Raymond Orteig was a hotel tycoon, hoping the contest might boost international travel. It was won by Charles Lindbergh and today is often credited with jump-starting the entire multibillion-dollar aerospace industry.
And space tourism is not the only possibility to be birthed by Rutan’s X Prize victory. Point-to-point travel, utilizing suborbital flights, puts travel time from New York to Tokyo at somewhere around an hour. If nothing else, this will radically alter the package-delivery business. Scientific research is another pursuit to soon benefit from cheap space flight. In the not-distant future, researchers won’t have to compete for extremely limited-availability $470,000 seats on the space shuttle to do experiments requiring zero gravity.
And these are just the direct results of Rutan’s victory. There are dozens of other spinoffs, including Dezso Molnar’s flying car, another project NASA said couldn’t be done. “NASA didn’t actually say it couldn’t be done,” says Molnar, “they said it couldn’t be done for at least 25 years.” His current design violates no existing FAA regulations, goes 200 mph on the ground, and 100-plus mph at 5,000 feet, and he’s pretty sure he can have it on the market in five years, which is considerably sooner than NASA.
But the real future lies a bit farther out. “Once we’re into orbit,” says Peter Diamandis, “the road to space will lead to a multitrillion-dollar industry. Everything we hold of value here on Earth — minerals, real estate, energy — the things we fight wars over, are in near infinite quantities in space.” And just in case you think this sounds far-fetched, there are already groups lobbying hard for a one-way trip to Mars for colonization purposes.