Interview With A Space Tourism Pioneer

CNN talks to Mark Shuttleworth. Most of the discussion is about his privately financed trip to Mir, but he does talk about the future of the industry:

Shuttleworth: We’re just starting to see the first private vehicles being certified as safe for flight, carrying passengers to the edge of space and back. Now, to put that in perspective, 30 years ago NASA and the military had vehicles that were capable of doing the same thing. But these are now vehicles that have been entirely privately designed. So in the next year or two, we’ll actually see the first privately funded space flights that take people out of the atmosphere and back. And those aren’t sort of Mercury Star or Apollo Star or Soleal Star orbital flights; they don’t go round the Earth and go into orbit. They literally shoot up like a canon ball, get you out of the atmosphere into space and falling back to land within a couple of minutes of your launch. That’s the first step that will really lay the groundwork for a whole exploration of private space flight.

Within five years I expect that we’ll have regular private flights, so that people paying relatively small amounts of money to have the privilege of being shot out of the atmosphere, experiencing the Earth as seen from space, that incredible sight of the Earth without borders, and then experiencing weightlessness and the feeling of looking into the universe, you realize just how small the Earth and solar system are in the context of the broader universe. So that’s really what we’ll see over the next five years. And then in 10 to 15 years, that will have grown to the point where maybe we can expect to see four orbital flights, entirely privately funded with vehicles that are entirely privately designed. There’s a tremendous amount of capital now going into the private space industry on the basis of somebody having done it. It’s like the four-minute mile. Once somebody does it the first time, everybody else wants to step up and give it a run. So, this really is the cusp of a new era.

Curnow: Which nations will dominate?

Shuttleworth: Clearly there is a lot of American capital going into private space flight at this stage. A lot of the technology, though, is still Russian and there are other countries entering the space race as well. India, China and Brazil all have developing capacity in space. I’ve no doubt though that it will be American-driven investment that leads the private exploration of space.

Curnow: What about private visits to the moon?

Shuttleworth: Well, the two are very intricately interlinked. It’s space tourism that’s going to reduce the cost of getting to space. Once you reduce the cost of getting to space, then national space budgets — the amount of money that NASA spends keeping people in lowest orbit, for example — can be used to take us that much further. It’s going to be a very rich interplay between commercial space flight, private space flight and a public exploration into the solar system for the greater good of humanity. The two are absolutely interlinked and we couldn’t realistically get to the moon without reductions in cost that will only come from private space tourism.

Emphasis is mine.

I’m not sure what he means by “four orbital flights.” Does he mean four companies offering them?

Unfortunately, he wasn’t asked what his own investment plans were.