Commercial spaceships could be taking travellers to the moon by 2020 under new proposals set by the Obama administration.
The “historic decision” to devote $6 billion over the next five years to commercial spaceflight could create 5,000 jobs in the US and help NASA avoid paying billions of dollars to the space station, said Bretton Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, during a Monday teleconference.
He also said that leading space entrepreneurs are also waiting in the wings to fill the US spaceflight gap after NASA retires its space shuttles this year.
Alexander also addressed one of the main doubts in the minds of space tourism sceptics – whether commercial spaceflight can provide safe access to space.
Some critics and members of Congress have expressed their own concerns about the safety of untried commercial spaceflight.
Elon Musk, founder of the commercial spaceflight venture Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), compared the issue to how airline travellers fly today on commercial airlines without a second thought because safety has become a universal standard for airlines. He and other space entrepreneurs said that they too must hold to the highest safety standards to remain competitive.
“Safety-wise, we are the least able to afford mishaps,” said Robert Bigelow, head of the Las Vegas, Nevada-based firm Bigelow Aerospace, which is building inflatable space hotels, told space.com.
Since shuttle flights began in 1981, NASA has suffered two disasters that have killed 14 astronauts.
“I think that for people to say that we here in the U.S. have done a great job on safety with the old way is just wrong,” said computer game developer and entrepreneur Richard Garriott, who paid $30 million to fly to the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz as a space tourist.
That spacecraft, he said, has a “100-fold difference” in its safety record compared to the space shuttle. Garriott is also the son of former NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, who flew on the Skylab space station and an early space shuttle flight.
SpaceX said it could start flying US astronauts into space around 2014, and costing less than NASA pays to fly astronauts aboard Russia’s Soyuz craft to the space station.
NASA currently pays about $51 million a seat to send astronauts to space on Russian spacecraft. But first the companies want to establish a safety record with many unmanned launches.
The space entrepreneurs all painted an optimistic picture of how commercial spaceflight could look by the year 2020.
Bigelow noted that his space hotel company plans to launch several private space stations within the next decade.
But the group also looked forward to commercial spaceflight beyond the confines of low-Earth orbit.
“By 2020 you’ll have seen private citizens circumnavigate the moon,” said Eric Anderson of Space Adventures, the only company currently selling space tourist flights to orbit.