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Rutan: Space Tourism "Two Years Away"

Published by Cathleen Manville on Tue Aug 10, 2004 4:17 am
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Burt RutanBy Ian Johnston of The Scotsman

Two brothers pioneering affordable space flight yesterday predicted tourists would be regularly blasting off into the heavens in as little as two years – as a rocket belonging to a rival group exploded shortly after take-off.

Americans Burt Rutan and his brother, Dick, arrived in Edinburgh to talk about their attempt to win the coveted £6 million Ansari X Prize by becoming the first private organisation to fly a re-usable, manned spacecraft into space twice within a fortnight. Twelve teams are competing for the prize.

Their arrival coincided with the news that an unmanned test flight in Washington State, in the United States, of the rival Rubicon 1 rocket failed after it crashed about 200 feet from take-off – its parachute failing to deploy.

Eric Meier, a mechanical engineer of Forks, Washington State, who founded Space Transport – the group behind Rubicon 1 – with his partner, Phillip Storm, had hoped to reach supersonic speeds and an altitude of 20,000 feet in the flight.

In true pioneer fashion, he was undeterred by the failure. “We need to raise some more money, fix our problems and launch another low-altitude flight as soon as possible,” he said. “It’s a learning experience to be expected when you’re developing a vehicle with this kind of capabilities.”

The Rutan brothers, who are giving a lecture at Edinburgh University today on their various achievements in flight, said there would eventually be hotels in space where people could play weightless squash and watch “theatre in the sphere” rather than the round.

The brothers, who have been funded by Paul Allen, a Microsoft co-founder, to the tune of £12-£18 million, foresee a period of “natural selection” that would eventually produce spacecraft safe enough to attract significant numbers of tourists.

Burt Rutan, 61, an aerospace engineer renowned for innovation, said: “I think within the next two to three years there will be tickets available for sub-orbital flights, but these are primarily going to be aimed at millionaires, as they are going to cost at least $100,000 (£60,000).

“In 12 or 15 years, there will be routine, affordable space tourism not just in the US but in a lot of countries – something costing around $30,000 (£18,000) or so.”

He believes that such space tourism will operate out of popular resort areas, such as Fiji or the Caribbean, and will add an extra dimension to people’s holidays.

“When you come back from your vacation, instead of having pictures of snorkelling and hiking, you will actually be the next astronaut. For quite a while that is going to be a very prestigious thing to be,” Mr Rutan said.

“It’s very expensive to take you into orbit, but it’s inexpensive to take you to Mach 3, sub-orbital flight, where the big excitement is the view, which is identical to that of orbit.”

“This [sub-orbital] business won’t last more than ten years, maybe 15 years because within that time period it will be affordable to go into orbit, which will be a big experience,” he said.

“I think orbital hotels will have some phenomenally interesting stuff, like weightless racket ball. You’ve seen a theatre in the round – think of a theatre in the sphere with the actors in the middle of it. I don’t know exactly, no-one knows what we’re really going to be doing once we have affordable space access.”

His team plans to make the two prize-winning flights in SpaceShipOne on 29 September and then 4 October in the skies 280 miles outside Las Vegas.

The spacecraft has already secured its place in history with a trial voyage in June, when it rocketed to 62 miles (100km) above the Earth’s surface and became the first privately-funded craft to reach space.

Mr Rutan, who admitted one of the main reasons they were in Scotland was for two days of golf at St Andrews with his brother, added: “We have reached the pinnacle of our goal. We did that in June when we flew the first private manned space flight to 100km altitude. Our programme is done from the standpoint of our primary goal.

“However, we do want to show that we can indeed fly repeated flights at a very low cost. The important thing is that it has to be considerably more safe than any other manned space flight.

“Today, while there have been 243 manned space flights in 43 years, more than 4 per cent of the people who have flown in space have died in accidents and that’s way too dangerous to go out and sell tickets.”

He said SpaceShipOne was designed to be simple, so there was not as much to go wrong and flights would be much cheaper than NASA’s Space Shuttle. “The Space Shuttle is a winged lander that has to be flown very accurately on re-entry. We have something entirely different,” he said.

“I felt the biggest risk in a sub-orbital space system was controlling the vehicle for re-entry. SpaceShipOne can re-enter the atmosphere at any attitude, it doesn’t have to be carefully flown because like a badminton shuttlecock it sorts itself out.”

The teams have less than five months to lay claim to the £6 million prize.

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