U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, left, and former shuttle commander Chris Ferguson, who now oversees Boeing's CST-100 commercial spacecraft program, inside a capsule mock-up. Image credit: Boeing

Dec 31, 2014 Space tourism could blossom with advent of US manned space taxis

Sen—KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL—With NASA’s selection of the winning companies—Boeing and SpaceX—to develop the first ever privately built orbital crewships in human history, a corollary effect is the resuscitation and eventual blossoming of ‘space tourism’ flights to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) in the years ahead.

Many have dreamed of soaring to the heavens. But until now, only a handful of humans outside of official space agencies have succeeded.

The barrier was cracked open a bit 13 years ago by the first commercial ‘space tourist’, entrepreneur Dennis Tito, who had worked earlier in his career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). 

He battled lengthy and extensive resistance from then NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin and others at NASA before finally becoming the first private person—also known later as a spaceflight participant—to fly in space for a fee, by launching aboard the Russian Soyuz TM-32 capsule on April 28, 2001.

Tito arranged his history making private spaceflight by working with Space Adventures and the Russian Federal Space Agency. After paying a fee of some $20 Million for training and his seat, he blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with two cosmonauts and spent over seven days in orbit and aboard the ISS.

Several other ‘spaceflight participants’ followed in the footsteps paved by Tito, all launching aboard the Soyuz. The last commercial human spaceflight mission by Guy Laliberté took place in 2009.

Since 2009 and because of the retirement of NASA’s space shuttles, all seats to orbit have been reserved for professional astronauts and cosmonauts from the ISS partners.

With the advent of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, reopened availability of the Soyuz and advances by several New Space ventures, tourists flight are again on the horizon.

Indeed singer Sarah Brightman is scheduled to break the tourist logjam and is training as a spaceflight passenger on a Soyuz flight launching to the ISS around September 2015, under arrangements negotiated through Space Adventures.

Boeing, Bigelow Aerospace, SpaceX and Space Adventures will all play key roles in 2015 and beyond.

With production of Boeing’s CST-100 manned space taxi now underway thanks to being awarded a $4.2 Billion contract by NASA, earlier plans by the company to offer seats to space tourists can now enter the realm of possibility.

Boeing’s CST-100 could be used to launch private citizens either to the ISS in the nearer term or to a private space station like the six-person, expandable BA 330 habitat planned by Bigelow Aerospace under earlier cooperative agreements announced between the two firms.

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Illustration of a Boeing CST-100 approaching Bigelow's BA 330 space station. Image credit: Bigelow Aerospace

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Schematic of Bigelow BA 330 expandable habitat. Image credit: Bigelow Aerospace

Bigelow’s BA 330 has been on hold for several years due to severe US congressional funding cuts to NASA’s commercial crew program that delayed the start of orbital flights by the Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Dragon V2 from 2015 to 2017. There was no point to building the BA 300, until the CST-100 was assured to fly, Bigelow officials told me. 

The outlook for tourist flights is more promising now regarding both the BA 330 and the ISS.

“We are still in discussions with Bigelow,” said Chris Ferguson, NASA’s final shuttle commander and now director of Boeing’s Crew and Mission Operations, in an interview with Sen.

“Bigelow still wants the CST-100 to go to his space station.”

Regarding ISS tourist flights, NASA says its potentially possible.

“If Boeing or SpaceX want to put a non-NASA personnel on the flight like a tourist or researcher then there is the ability to do that through the [Commercial Crew] contract, but they have to propose that through NASA,” said Phil McAlister, director of Commercial Spaceflight at NASA Headquarters, in an interview with Sen at the Kennedy Space Center.

Bigelow, NASA and SpaceX are also cooperating on a significant joint ISS experiment upcoming in 2015 to test expandable space habitat technology.

Under a $17.8 million NASA contract, Bigelow Aerospace will provide a prototype habitat spacecraft know as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) in 2015 for a two-year technology demonstration.

The “BEAM” prototype expandable spacecraft is targeted for launch to the ISS in 2015 in the unpressurized truck section of the SpaceX cargo Dragon. After arriving at the ISS, astronauts will use the stations robotic arm to attach it to the Tranquility module.

The goal is to conduct a two-year long technology demonstration of expandable habitats as part of a crewed operation.

Large habitats such as the BA 330 could be a boon to NASA’s plans to send Humans to Mars in the 2030s aboard the Orion. Therefore the BEAM technology demonstration could be the forerunner to ambitious plans for astronauts operations both in low Earth orbit and on deep space exploration missions.

So stay fit and perhaps your orbital spaceflight dreams will come true. 

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