The dictionary defines exploration as “travel for the purpose of discovery.”
Space exploration is the first phase in a three-phase process known as space development. The three phases are space exploration, space industrialization, and space settlement.
The Augustine Committee for the Review of US Human Space Flight Plans stated that, “The ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion in to the solar system.” NASA Administrator Major General Charles Bolden speaks of the day, in the not too distant future, when thousands of people will be living in space. Before space settlement can occur, however, there must be money to pay for it and useful work for those people to do. Therefore, space industries.
It all begins with exploration, though. Some exploration will be aimed at discovering resources that can used for developing space industries and building space settlements. Some exploration will be more personal, though, carried out for personal reasons. This is the realm of citizen space exploration.
The first aircraft were not developed for commercial, or even military, purposes. They were built by private citizens who simply wanted to fly. (The United States government had a well-funded program to invent the first airplane. It was run by Samuel Langley, the head of the Smithsonian Institution and one of the nation’s foremost scientists. It was not successful.) Only later did people begin to find practical applications for airplanes.
The first microcomputers were not developed for business or government applications. In fact, they were ridiculed by the data-processing establishment. They were built for hobbyists.
In the early 1900’s, we had citizen aviators such as the Wright Brothers. Near the end of the century, we had citizen computer scientists such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Today, we are entering the era of the citizen space explorer.
Until recently, human spaceflight was, with few exceptions, the exclusive domain of government. A small crack in that barrier came in the 1990’s, when the Soviet Union was falling apart. Faced with a cash crisis, the USSR began to view its manned space program as a commodity that could be offered on the world market. This led British sponsors to create Project Juno, a contest to fly the first Briton in space. Helen Sharman, a former chemist with the Mars chocolate company, won the contest and travelled to the Mir space station in a Soyuz space capsule in 1991.
Later in the decade, a group of Americans formed a corporation called MirCorp to rescue the Mir space station, which was in danger of being deorbited due to lack of funds. MirCorp was successful in funding a manned maintenance mission to Mir (Soyuz TM-30), an unmanned Progress cargo mission, and the first privately funded spacewalk, but it was ultimately unsuccessful in saving Mir. In the process, however, MirCorp managed to locate a customer who, for the first time, had the means and desire to pay his own way into space: Dennis Tito.
Dennis Tito never visited the Mir space station, but did travel to the International Space Station on a Soyuz flight in 2001. By that time, MirCorp was gone, along with the Mir station, and Tito’s trip was arranged by another company, Space Adventures.
Since 2001, Space Adventures has arranged trips to ISS for six additional citizen explorers. Mark Shuttleworth, a South African, flew in 2002. Greg Olsen, an American like Tito, flew in 2005. Anousheh Ansari became the first Iranian-American to fly in space and first female citizen space explorer in 2006.
Former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi travelled to ISS in 2007 and again in 2009, becoming the first citizen space explorer to go into space twice. In 2008, Richard Garriott, a computer-game pioneer and son of NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, travelled to ISS, becoming the first second-generation space explorer. In 2009, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte became the first citizen space explorer from Canada.
Each of these citizen explorers paid a hefty sum for the trip into space. Dennis Tito is widely reported to have paid $20 million, although the exact terms of the deal have never been publicly revealed. This price has increased in recent years, with the latest flight reportedly costing about $35 million.
Spaceflight will not remain that expensive for long, however. The real breakthrough came in 2004, when a small rocket plane called SpaceShip One flew into space three times. SpaceShip One was built for just over $10 million — about half the cost of Dennis Tito’s trip into space. SpaceShip One won the $10 million Ansari X-Prize (endowed by Anousheh Ansari) for the first privately funded spacecraft that could travel into space twice within a period of two weeks. So, it nearly broke even.
SpaceShip One also inspired Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, to create a new division, Virgin Galactic, and fund the development of SpaceShip Two — a larger, commercial follow-on that will carry two pilots and six citizen space explorers on each flight.
Other companies are also getting into the act. XCOR Aerospace built the EZ-Rocket, another rocket-powered airplane that flew in 2001, three years before SpaceShip One. The EZ-Rocket did not go into space — it was not a high-performance aircraft at all — but it did demonstrate the ability to refuel and fly a rocketplane four times in one day and to do rocket-development projects at very low cost. XCOR has used the experience gained from the EZ-Rocket and other projects to design a rocketplane called the Lynx, which will go into space. The first Lynx prototype is now under construction and XCOR hopes for a first flight by the end of 2012.
Meanwhile, in Texas, a company called Armadillo Aerospace is developing a suborbital spacecraft for Space Adventures, the company that arranged trips to ISS for Dennis Tito and other citizen space explorers. This new vehicle won’t be able to take Space Adventures customers to ISS, but it will be much cheaper than a Soyuz flight.
When these suborbital spacecraft enter commercial service, the price of human spaceflight will tumble. Companies such as Armadillo, XCOR, and Virgin Galactic expect to charge $100,000-200,000 for a ticket into space, instead of $20,000,000-35,000,000. In time, as the vehicle operators gain experience and initial investment is paid off, prices will drop even lower. The era of widespread citizen space travel is about to begin.