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