Space travel could get a boost from a meeting of the minds and wallets in Dubai this week when the World Space Risk Forum brings together companies, insurance firms, and financiers interested in underwriting privately-funded trips into orbit.
The consensus, said the forum organizers, is that space travel could be viable within the next two to three years.
"Space tourism is coming," said conference head Laurent Lemaire, who pointed to the "shift from governmental to private sector" in advancing space travel. His company, Elseco Limited, insures against space risk, damage that ranges from technical malfunctions to mid-air collisions with space junk.
The commercial interest in space has come in part from a U.S. government decision to cut NASA's budget, which included a trim of the Constellation Project.
Major elements of the program, which handles human space flight, have been supplanted by government outsourcing to companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Foreign governments, notably China and India, have grown their space programs. China launched its first manned spaceflight in 2003, while India plans its own by 2016.
But major news in spaceflight development has come from private companies, foremost Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. For a $200,000 ticket, passengers on a reusable spacecraft will make a 2 ½ hour trip into low orbit, for associated weightlessness and a view of the earth from 50,000 feet above.
'You're going to be sick, you're going to be shaken, it's not going to be pleasant. But when you stop in the silence and see the earth from above, it's probably something that's deeply fulfilling,' said Lemaire.
The company says prices will fall over time, allowing more private astronauts to fly. At the Dubai conference Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn said 330 people had signed up, at least 20 of them from the Gulf region.
Abu Dhabi, which took a 32 percent stake in Virgin Galactic for $280 million, has the regional rights to host a spaceport on UAE soil. But the company says that, for now, operations and space flights would be centered on its headquarters in New Mexico.
Space Tourism Won't Be Cheap
Another company, Excalibur Almaz, is aiming to send paying clients further into space. Headed by former U.S. Astronaut Leroy Chiao, a speaker at the Space Risk Forum, the company would bring scientific research on board to give passengers something to do during the five to seven day trip. The price tag would be significantly higher, benchmarked against the $35 million cost of a one-week stay on the International Space Station.
"The main cost of any trip into space is the rocket. Unfortunately they're not reusable, and right now they cost around $60 million. It would take a breakthrough in rocket technology to bring that cost down," Chiao told ABC News.
What has advanced the frontiers of space science is the emergence of incentivized prizes, like the X Prize for research innovation. In 2004, the Ansari X Prize set a $10 million prize for the team that built and launched a craft capable of making multiple trips into space.
The winning team, led by aerospace designer Burt Rutan and technology tycoon Paul Allen, designed what would the prototype for Virgin Galactic's shuttle. Since then new contests have been announced, like the Google Lunar X Prize of $30 million for the first private team to land a robot on the moon and transmits images back to earth.
"The prizes do play a role in science. The greatest value is that they raise public awareness of what's going on," said Chiao.
The test for privately-funded space ventures will be sustainability, says space insurance expert Laurent Lamierre. The technology and the financing have to make enough progress for corporations to take on the risk.
"Space tourism is a reality," he said. "But we have to see if it really flies."