Fancy a trip to space?
Good news – you can hitch a ride to the International Space Station with the Russians. Bad news – it will cost you in the region of $20 million.
Space tourism is a rapidly growing industry that has been talked about for decades. Back in the 1960s, it was widely believed that space hotels would be in orbit by the turn of the millennium and that family holidays to the Moon would be commonplace.
We may not have fulfilled those expectations just yet, but the industry is alive and kicking. Within a few years, private companies expect to be shuttling paying customers to the edge of the Earth on a regular basis.
But it’s not just the big boys of space exploration, namely the US and Russia, that are getting involved.
Steve Bennett is the founder and CEO of Starchaser Industries, a British company specialising in the development and commercialisation of space related products. Since their foundation in 1992, Starchaser have launched multiple rockets, including the largest and most powerful one ever to lift off from British soil.
In a talk arranged by MANSEDS (Manchester Students for the Exploration and Development of Space), Bennett spoke about his company’s bid to lead the way in the space tourism industry.
Bennett began by introducing his company, explaining that they were now focusing primarily on suborbital spaceflight. They have been constructing rockets for more than two decades and have tested small capsules in which they eventually hope to seat a crew of tourists.
The initial aim is to transport people up to a height of 100km. At this altitude, describing the view as majestic is an understatement. The curvature of the Earth is clearly visible and the normal blue sky (or grey, if you live in Manchester) is replaced by a pitch black canvas dotted with countless stars. Passengers will experience roughly four minutes of weightlessness before travelling back down to Earth.
Richard Branson is almost certainly the best known British advocate of space tourism, with Virgin Galactic’s endeavours regularly featured in the media. But despite lacking the financial might of the likes of Branson and Elon Musk, Starchaser looks set to play an equally important role in the growth of the sector.
Bennett talked about his interest in rockets. As a child, he was mesmerised by the Moon Landings and Thunderbirds and was inspired to construct his own rockets. He essentially taught himself rocket science and through trial and error managed to launch multiple small rockets from his garden.
These days, the rockets he builds are quite a bit bigger.
In 2001, Morecambe Bay was the site for the launch of the biggest UK rocket ever to take to the skies – NOVA / Starchaser 4. Reaching a speed of 600mph in just six seconds, it flew to a height of over 5500 feet before parachuting back down to Earth.
Images and videos of the engines produced by the company were shown. Their first liquid propellant engine generated half a tonne of thrust – their most recent one, which they hope to test soon, will produce thirty times that amount.
A unique selling point of the company that Bennett is particularly proud of is the Launch Escape System. Shortly after lift-off, the main rocket engine will be jettisoned, but a smaller mono-propellant rocket engine is attached to the top of the passenger capsule. This essentially acts as an ejector seat for the entire capsule.
Starchaser appear to be well on schedule, which is astonishing given the financial climate that they’ve had to cope with over the past decade. Bennett claimed that if funding wasn’t an issue, his company would be transporting customers within three years.
Current projects include Starchaser 5, which will see the three-seater Thunderstar spacecraft attached to a rocket and flown up to the edge of space. The first prototype has already been constructed.
A major aim of Starchaser Industries is to inspire the next generation of space scientists and engineers. Throughout a year, employees make visits to 200 schools, engaging roughly 150,000 students. Rockets and capsules are often brought along too.
During a brief Q&A session, Bennett spoke of his excitement at what the space tourism industry could potentially achieve. He believes that it will have a monumental impact on the way we live our lives and that once it kicks off, the possibilities will be endless.
In fact, he’s so convinced by its potential that he thinks the industry will make a select group of people the world’s first trillionaires.
At the moment, space tourism is exclusively limited to the extremely wealthy. I asked him how long it will be until it becomes affordable for the wider public.
He replied by saying that the industry must follow the path that aviation took over a century ago. A barnstorming phase of rigorous planning and testing must come first, followed by an exclusive era in which only the very wealthy will be able to afford trips. Once the industry has taken off and spaceflights become more common, the price will plummet.
Bennett stated that within ten years of the industry getting going, ticket prices for suborbital flights could fall to £10,000 – by no means cheap, but certainly affordable for a much larger market.
The future of the industry is incredibly exciting, although at the moment it is simply being held back by a lack of funding. Once this problem is solved, space tourism promises to revolutionise the modern world.