Aerospace Goliath Enters Private Spaceflight Arena

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I learned yesterday that the big showstopper in the fledgling business of flying private citizens in space is not so much the $40 million-plus price tag, but a lack of available seats on the Russian Soyuz capsules used to ferry astronauts and cosmonauts to and from the space station.

WIDE ANGLE: Supplying the Space Station

So with much aplomb, The Boeing Co., has decided to throw its Goliath-class reputation into a commercial space arena populated by startups, internet entrepreneurs and small firms working to pioneer the space frontier, with the goal of helping aspiring non-professional astronauts fulfill their dreams.

WATCH VIDEO: The latest advancements in spaceflight and exploration.

“One of our stated goals in our division is to become the Boeing commercial aircraft of human space commerce,” said Brewster Shaw, a three-time shuttle astronaut who now serves as a Boeing vice president and general manager.

“Very few people have made it to orbit, probably a little over 500 out of some six or seven billion people. That’s one out of 60 million human beings have had the opportunity to experience viewing our world from orbit. That’s not enough. We want to see many more have that opportunity,” Shaw told reporters during a conference call.

Boeing’s answer: a seven-person capsule it calls the CST-100 (CST stands for Crew Space Transportation) which the firm is developing to rival Space Exploration Technologies’ Dragon spaceship, among others. All the contenders are eying potentially lucrative contracts taxiing NASA and partner astronauts to the International Space Station, an idea that has sharply divided Congress.

The press conference was to announce Boeing’s marketing agreement with Space Adventures, a Virginia-based outfit that brokered junkets to the space station for seven business tycoons, including Microsoft co-founder Charles Simonyi, who enjoyed the experience so much he went twice.

“The marketplace,” says Space Adventures’ chief Eric

Anderson, “has not been constrained by the number of people who wanted to go.

It’s been constrained by access to orbit.”

In addition to flying to the space station, Boeing plans to

use its capsules to reach other planned orbital outposts, including inflatable

habitats being built by Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace. Free-flying

rides, similar to what Virgin Galactic is planning on a suborbital scale, are

not in the cards at this time, John Elbon, Boeing’s manager for commercial crew

transportation systems, tells me.

Elbon and Anderson say the price to ride on CST-100 “will be

competitive” with Soyuz, which currently costs NASA $51 million per seat. The

last private space flier to the station, Guy

Laliberté, the founder of Cirque du Soleil, paid about $40 million a

year ago.

NASA has yet to weigh in on how many non-staff personnel

would be welcomed aboard the station and for how long. And despite Boeing’s altruism to make us all space-farers, the company has no plans to pursue its space taxi without

more seed funds from the government.

“If we had to do this with

Boeing investment only we wouldn’t be able to close the business case,” Elbon

said.

NASA last year awarded

Boeing a contract worth $18 million for work on CST-100, part of a $50 million

investment in a range of commercial crew vehicles.

The agency also awarded two firms — Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, and Orbital Sciences Corp. — contracts worth a combined $3.5 billion to develop and fly rockets and capsules to deliver cargo to the station after the shuttles are retired next

year.

INTERVIEW: Space on the Brain: Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, talks with Discovery News.

Image: Artist’s rendering of the Boeing CST-100 — a proposed NASA space taxi with seats to spare for private space travelers.

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