The latest trend in eco-tourism is completely out of this world ... and right around the corner.
Routine commercial travel to outer space may be the norm as soon as 2012, as the next generation of spacecraft — designed by private sector firms like Virgin Galactic, Orbital Sciences Corp., Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and others — transport adventure-seeking civilians into low-Earth orbit.
There, they can see the sun rise many times a day, and experience the breathtaking curve of planet Earth that only NASA astronauts such as Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin have previously seen. If they want to extend their stay, they can check in to the solar system’s first orbiting hotel, The Galactic Space Suite Hotel, set to open in three years.
"There are more projects like this going on than most experts even know about," Doug Raybeck, a futurist and an emeritus professor at Hamilton College in New York, tells FoxNews.com. "There are a lot of people developing this technology under the radar and they want it that way."
As NASA retires its space shuttle fleet in the coming years, these next-generation ships will also launch science experiments and satellites into space, or to the International Space Station (ISS).
Here's just a sampling of cutting-edge spacecraft:
• WhiteKnightTwo is a jet-powered carrier that will launch the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft; the two vehicles form a two-stage manned launch system, and Billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has already ordered a pair of WhiteKnightTwos. The ships will form the basis for Virgin Galactic's suborbital fleet, which will charge space tourists $200,000 a head for a 2-hour space flight. The first services will operate from Spaceport America in New Mexico, though other spaceports may open in the U.K. or Sweden.
• The Dragon, a free-flying, reusable spacecraft is being developed by SpaceX for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. Developed in 2005, the Dragon spacecraft consists of a pressurized capsule for personnel and an unpressurized trunk for transport of cargo.
• The Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle is NASA’s next-generation spacecraft. It will transport crews to and from the International Space Station, the moon and Mars and is being developed by Lockheed-Martin and Orbital Sciences Corp.
Some technologies, still in the concept stage, are even more mind-blowing, including spacecraft powered by "solar sails," which harness solar winds to travel between galaxies a thousand light-years apart. Thousand-year-long flights may seem absurd, but rocket scientists have a solution for that, too. More on that topic in a minute.
"These technology entrepreneurs are on the verge of creating a new economy, just like Bill Gates did with the PC in the 1980s," says Patricia Hynes, director of the NASA New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, and organizer of an annual conference on commercial space flight, recently held in Las Cruces, N.M.
The Burgeoning Industry
Space buffs have talked about commercial space for decades; President Reagan had an office of commercial space in his Department of Commerce 20 years ago. But a number of factors have converged, of late, to make the visions something that can be achieved quickly.
First, experts tell FoxNews.com, new materials and space propulsion technologies are enabling developers to build these spacecraft more cheaply than before. Next, the federal government — facing unprecedented debt from the Obama administration’s stimulus spending — is hardly keen about funding NASA’s dream projects.
To keep its long-term systems planning going, the space agency is working more in partnership with private-sector firms, which can use money from investment bankers to get launch vehicles and spacecraft going more quickly and cheaply than the government. "The smartest thing they ever did is reach out to the business community," says Raybeck, the futurist. "There’s money in them there hills."
This has given the U.S. a "five-year lead on the Chinese, and other nations, in terms of the commercial space industry," says Hynes. "They can't compete with us technically, financially or in terms of regulatory structure."
The federal regulatory aspect emerged, publicly, for the first time at the 60th International Astronautical Conference in South Korea. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the U.S. government agency that regulates air flight, is now charged with licensing space launch companies in the U.S.
George Nield, associate administrator of the FAA, space transportation initiative, spoke at the show about these new rules.
"This is a very exciting time for commercial space transportation. There are some very dramatic and far-reaching changes that are coming. Up to this point, government agencies have dominated human space flight efforts. Over the next few years, I expect that private industry will play a key role in low-Earth orbit and suborbital space flight," Nield told conference attendees. "This will require a launch license from our office at the FAA. We are on the threshold of a new era in space transportation…suborbital space tourism."
The FAA is working with "half a dozen space companies" on this now, Nield indicates. There will be "hundreds" of commercial space launches every year in the coming years, he adds, and that will "change the way we think about space."
How Much Will It Cost Me?
According to the president of Virgin Galactic, Will Whitehorn, his company is planning to carry people into orbit two times a day when it is operational in the coming years. "This will be the experience of their lives," Whitehorn indicates. Hundreds of people have already booked for the first flights on Virgin.
Initially, tourism will be very expensive, around $200,000 per passenger. "But costs will go down," John Lindner, a professor of physics at the College of Wooster in Ohio, tells FoxNews.com. "And services will evolve."
For example, passengers may be able to travel out to visit asteroids, speculates space engineer Greg Matloff, a professor at The City College of New York, in an interview with FoxNews.com. "But for interstellar, and inter-solar system travel, you'll have to use the resources of the solar system to make it viable," Matloff says.
Matloff reckons that those solar sails could be constructed out of nano-technologies that would soak up solar wind and gamma rays for power. Going to another galaxy would be quite difficult, however. Robots would have to power the ships, as the trip would take well over 1,000 years. For humans to take such a voyage, they would have to start off as cryogenically frozen zygotes, says Matloff, and brought to life as the spacecraft neared its final destination.
American firms are not the only ones exploring this technology niche, though they seem to have a big lead now. The Russians and the French are eyeing future commercial space transportation too. Mario Delepine, a spokesman for Parisian commercial launch company Arianespace, tells FoxNews.com that his firm is already "starting to think about the next generation of launch technology. This must be ready by 2025, roughly."
Though the global economy has hit a rough patch during the last year or so, the space sector has grown 9 percent a year over the past decade, more than three times faster than the economy as a whole during that time. "We’re creating a new economy," says Hynes.