On Sept. 29, Anousheh Ansari, an American businesswoman born in Iran, touched down in Kazakhstan after orbiting aboard the International Space Station. The space tourist reportedly paid $20 million for the week-and-a-half trip.
As Ansari and a few predecessors proved, space travel is within reach of paying tourists as long as they're multimillionaires. But will everyday people ever have access to space?
The answer is maybe for astronauts and probably for payloads.
"They'll have to bring down the cost of space transportation radically, before people that aren't millionaires and billionaires are able to travel," said J. David Baxter, president of the Salt Lake City-based Utah Space Association. Last Friday and Saturday in Ogden, the association hosted the National Space Society's Western regional conference, with topics including low-cost space transportation.
Advances in propulsion, some of which have been the subject of experiments, will be needed to bring down costs, he said.
"There's an expense problem with conventional rocketry," Baxter added. "It costs millions of dollars to do it."
However, he noted, Virgin Galactic has plans for "a $500,000 price tag for people to travel into space with them." If the venture, founded by space innovator Sir Richard Branson, is able to carry tourists into sub-orbital space for half a million dollars, the trip could be possible for upper-middle-class folks, he said.
"They'll be weightless, like Alan Shepard was, for 10 or 15 minutes, and then they'd come back down," Baxter said.
Baxter is optimistic that he'll be able to head into space someday, especially if new propulsion systems are developed. Many at last week's meeting were enthusiastic about it, he said.
Robert Bigelow, a staff member of Clark Planetarium at The Gateway and one of the speakers at the meeting, said he hopes someday the cost of human spaceflight drops. "I would like it to happen so I could do it," he said.
Although he's not an expert, he added, "I think we would need some better technology, more efficient propulsion engines."
Bigelow said if that ever happened, he imagines it would be "the ultimate vacation."
While not offering the ultimate vacation, UP Aerospace, based in Farmington, Conn., may be offering the ultimate school project.
At the Small Satellite Conference held at Utah State University in August, NASA administrator Mike Griffin said the space agency was no longer offering student projects the chance to ride along with the space shuttle. If educators want to negotiate with firms to get these experiments into space, Griffin said, "I wish you well. But it is not my job to be the broker for those launches."
UP Aerospace CEO Eric Knight, who was also present at the conference, said such brokering is the job of UP Aerospace, however. The company has begun to use the new Spaceport America facility in Sierra County, N.M., for private payload launches. The first launch, on Sept. 25, went sour after the rocket veered off course, but Knight considers it a success anyway.
"It was successful in that we conducted a launch," he said in a telephone interview. "It did not reach the altitude we intended to."
UP Aerospace intends to provide access to space for payloads put together by students, businesses and scientists, becoming the "Southwest Airlines of the aerospace industry," he said.
"There's a need for that, to have a service that is timely (and) affordable." The company may be the only one providing direct access to space for student experiments. "We have flights that are booked years in advance," Knight said.
"A core of our company is providing the education community with cost-effective access to space."
The next suborbital flight should be within a couple of months, according to Knight. Within the next two years, "our plan is to be launching a couple of flights per month."Also on the drawing board is an orbital vehicle, which he hopes will be tested within 18 months to two years. Lifting satellites the size of grapefruits into orbit, Knight believes, could be a multibillion-dollar market.