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Will Space Tourism Save Manned Space Flight in America?

Astronaut Mike Melvill atop Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne

In April, Neil Armstrong wrote America was on a “long downhill slide to mediocrity” in space exploration, and that Obama’s overhaul of NASA to privatize manned space flight and focus on missions like monitoring climate change will be “devastating” to manned space flight.  However, an emerging market for “space tourism” might be a shot in the arm for American space exploration.

Boeing recently announced plans to develop a “space taxi” in a partnership with Vienna, Va.-based Space Adventures that would enter service by the end of 2015. Brewster Shaw, Boeing’s vice president and general manager of space exploration, called the partnership “another opportunity to jump-start the human migration to space,” and Space Adventure has already arranged seven trips to space aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Unfortunately for everyone but the ultra-rich, rides on a Soyuz carry a $40 million price tag, mostly because the Russian space vehicle is a single-use model. A new, reusable space vehicle could bring the price of a trip to low earth orbit down considerably.

British mogul Richard Branson has already started Virgin Galactic, a space-tourism company, and if you’ve got $200,000 and a burning desire to see outer space, you can already book a spot on SpaceShipOne, winner of the $10 million X prize for the first manned commercial space flight. Virgin Galactic’s prototype is launched from atop another aircraft at commercial cruising altitudes, making it possible for its hybrid rocket engines to boost it into space without the need for expensive booster rockets.

The feasibility of commercial space travel has been debated since before Yuri Gagarin ever left Earth’s atmosphere. However, the other transportation revolutions in America’s history, from the steamboat to the aircraft, relied on private funding and innovation as well as government support. Why should space be any different?

After all, Trans World Airlines was established only 30 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk.  If the cost curve of space travel continues to trend downward and the safety of these new flight systems continue to improve, 30 years from now I might just buy my grandkids a trip to space as a graduation present.

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