Reaching the “Tipping Point” for Space Tourism

From Ad Astra, Volume 18 Number 3, Fall 2006

A Roundtable with the Personal Spaceflight Federation

By Leonard David

To take the pulse of the future of public space travel, this year’s International Space Development Conference (ISDC), held May 4-7 in Los Angeles, was the best place to be on Earth in space and time.

George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, spotlighted the power of the ISDC to attract the pioneers of space travel when he pointed out that the space tourism ORBIT Awards dinner on the opening night of ISDC was truly the first time that the orbital tourism community and all its stars joined the suborbital space community and its early customers.

“The meeting of these pioneers shows how important a nexus ISDC and NSS have become for the entrepreneurial space community,” Whitesides told Ad Astra. “NSS’s ISDC is the place where enthusiasts can rub shoulders with the folks who are changing the world of space and never has that been truer than at this year’s conference.”

Nothing demonstrated that nexus better than a meeting of the newly formed Personal Spaceflight Federation (PSF), held prior to the ISDC’s formal start. “The PSF is a trade assocation focused around commercial human spaceflight, created to address common issues for the industry and promote its growth worldwide,” noted John Gedmark, the group’s executive director.

“We are principally working to make sure the industry will have as high a level of safety as possible,” Gedmark told Ad Astra. Among other action items discussed by PSF members, “we took ISDC as an opportunity to discuss the latest proposed regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration governing suborbital spaceflight,” he said.

“The PSF is an important sign of the increasing legitimacy of this new industry,” Whitesides added. To have the premier spark plugs of the public spaceflight movement all in one room to address PSF matters, “you could almost feel the space vibrating with history.”

Ad Astra held a special roundtable at ISDC, asking key players within PSF and other leaders to share their thoughts regarding the future of public space travel as well as potential roadblocks ahead. Joining in the discussion were:

  • James Benson, Founder, Chairman and Chief Technology Officer of SpaceDev
  • Jeff Greason, President and CEO of XCOR Aerospace
  • Eric Anderson, President and CEO of Space Adventures, Ltd.
  • Peter Diamandis, Chairman of the X Prize Foundation
  • Michael Kelly, Vice President of the X Prize Foundation
  • Rick Homans, New Mexico Spaceport Authority Chairman and New Mexico Economic Development Department Secretary
  • Stuart Witt, Mojave Airport/Spaceport Manager
  • George French, President and CEO of Rocketplane Kistler

Here are highlights from that roundtable discussion:

Q. Are we at a tipping point in the realization of personal spaceflight—a unique time in history—or are we kidding ourselves?

James Benson: This is a unique time in history. Dennis Tito’s ride to the Space Station may have opened the era of the second space age, which I think is characterized by the commercial, private sector. With the success of Paul Allen’s SpaceShipOne winning the Ansari X Prize, that really broke down a lot of barriers in terms of credibility. It demonstrated that new technology could go from concept to humans in space within three years for $25 million to $35 million. That is very revolutionary and paradigm-shifting. And I think we’re all part of that.

Jeff Greason: I don’t really believe in the concept of a tipping point…not behind us, under our feet or ahead of us. What I see—with little peaks, valleys and little blips—is that the private spaceflight has exponentially grown from an incredibly low starting point in the 1980s. What’s happening suddenly is that we’ve reached a threshold where the general public is starting to notice it, and I see every sign of that growth accelerating. We have grown from a big success story being in the hundreds of thousands to being in the millions to being in the tens of millions of dollars of revenue. With luck, the $100 million revenue is ahead of us.

Eric Anderson: I believe the answer to whether we’re at a tipping point is both yes and no. From the perspective of the market, we’re over the tipping point. Space Adventures has sold over a $100 million in spaceflights. The reason why billionaire entrepreneurs are willing to risk entering the commercial human spaceflight industry, several states and other countries, too, is because no one doubts that the market exists. So from the market side, we’re beyond the tipping point.

However, from the technology side, I still think we have a ways to go. We need to prove that we can fly vehicles reliably, often and safely…and that’s come over the next few years.

Q. Not too long ago, advocates of public space travel registered high on the giggle-factor meter. That appears no longer to be the case. What’s made the difference?

Peter Diamandis: Something has happened that I think has escaped a majority of people’s attention. For the first time, the wealth and technical capability to build spaceships is present within small groups. A small entrepreneurial team of 20 people funded by a single individual can build a spaceship to go into space. That’s fundamentally different. We’re no longer dependent upon the start/stop, start/stop cancel program process of the federal government.

We finally have a real marketplace that’s more than flying hunks of metal into space. That market is self-loading, carbon-based payloads—humans. It’s all about flying people.

Michael Kelly: Technologically, everything has been here for 40 years to kick off a suborbital tourist business. I grew up in the Apollo era, and I know that people of my parent’s generation and people of my generation felt betrayed at the end of Apollo. We assumed that we would be next. And that was really never the intent. It was just to beat the Russians to the Moon. It was left to the private sector to pick up the slack, and the private sector just didn’t do it.

But now we’ve come to the time that everybody knows that we, too, can go to space. And that’s not going to change. So ultimately, yes, we’ve reached the tipping point where people know it’s possible and they know that they can go. From now on it’s just a question of time.

Leonard David has been reporting on space exploration for more than 30 years. He was an award-winning senior space writer for and his work has appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines and books, such as the Financial Times, Foreign Policy, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Sky and Telescope, Astronomy, and’s sister publication, Space News.