Commercial space travel: The next Mt. Everest?

Will commercial space travel be a boon or a bust? Or will it just be one of those crazy activities only rich folks can afford?

Those and other pertinent questions were addressed by the Federal Aviation Administration Associate Administrator Dr. George C. Nield, at the recent International Space Development Conference.

Nield spoke on the anniversary of the 55th anniversary of the day Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest and he equated that feat with the people who have already or who plan to go into space.

"There can be no question that climbing Mount Everest is a risky personal choice. So is riding a rocket into space," Nield said. Consider the implications for those who choose to go: The Redstone rocket that carried Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom on suborbital flights was designed to throw a 500 kiloton nuclear warhead some 200 miles downrange. The Atlas of the Mercury program and the Titan of the Gemini days were designed as Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.

"Passengers will be riding a vessel packed with a volatile mix of carefully processed chemical ingredients, thousands of interdependent parts, and extremely sophisticated software. And they will be bound for an inhospitable environment far, far away from where they bought their tickets," Nield said. "Private human space flight is like climbing Mount Everest with a lot farther to fall."

Regardless of whether the 21st century space flight passenger is riding a somewhat conventional vertically-launched vehicle or some kind of horizontally-launched, rocket-powered spaceplane, it's likely to have more than just a passing kinship with its predecessors, Nield said.

The FAA has regulations in place, based on informed consent, where the passenger has to be fully apprised of all the risks involved and then sign a form acknowledging that they know what they are getting into, Nield said. That's why the FAA insists on safety, safety and more safety. That's why Congress approved the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, putting the FAA in charge of regulating commercial human space flight, he added.

And as for costs: The most common figure I hear for a suborbital rocket ride is around $200,000, or at least it will be to start. Who can afford that? he asked. Again Nield used Mount Everest climbing as an example.

"If you check the National Geographic Adventure Magazine, you will find that what they call the "semi-standard" guided climb is $65,000, plus up to $15,000 for additional items. The climbing permit alone is $25,000. if you add up a few of the "optional" expenses, like round-trip transportation, some Sherpas, extra oxygen bottles, tents, and the always handy satellite phone permits, it could easily total over $200,000, Nield said.

"That's assuming you don't need a helicopter evacuation, that you choose not to make a donation to the local monastery, that you decline to buy prayer flags for the base camp, and that you decide not to pay for any of the ritual ceremonies, strongly recommended by the Sherpas, in order to appease the always powerful and sometimes temperamental mountain itself," Nield said.

It is expected that in 2009 or 2010 Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures will begin offering weekly suborbital flights of space tourism. Space Adventures in fact next week is expected to update the public on its space plans and announce a new millionaire spaceman.

Space Adventures last year opened for the first time the opportunity to train as a private space explorer alongside one of its orbital spaceflight candidates, and among professional astronauts, is now open to the public. The astronaut will be trained as a back-up to fly with famed game developer and son of former NASA astronaut, Richard Garriott, currently planning a mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in October 2008. Computer game developer Garriott is paying at least $30 million to launch toward the space station aboard a Russian Soyuz spaceship according to Space Adventures, which brokered the flight with Russia's Federal Space Agency.

Meanwhile, Nield went on to say the emerging commercial space industry is a separate and independent space transportation service provider. It is an industry happy to work with NASA and the DOD, not as a subcontractor, but as an equal and necessary ally, Nield said.

That's because NASA is headed out into the solar system. What NASA has achieved in low-earth orbit will soon be up to private hands. It will become part of the work of the commercial space community. It will happen because NASA paved the way, but NASA will no longer be the major player in low-earth orbit. Private industry will be. When it comes to low-earth orbit, launch and payload decisions will be determined more in laboratories, on campuses, at foundations, and in board rooms, Nield said.

In April, the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation released a study of commercial space transportation's impact on the US economy. The figures captured the picture in 2006, Nield said. In a nutshell, here's what it showed:

* $139 billion in economic activity

* $35 billion in earnings

· 729,000 jobs The global space economy is worth some $251 billion of which the US government spends about $63 billion according to the Space Business Forum.

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