In the last few years, personal space travel has become a far more feasible business proposition, but officials in the industry acknowledge that a lot of work will be needed to foster and then sustain businesses that enter the field.

One early concern in the fledgling industry is ensuring that companies do not over-promise their customers, and also that they make sure those customers understand that adventures in space — even suborbital space — will be costly for the foreseeable future and far from risk free.

Meanwhile, passenger space travel into Earth orbit may well be accelerated by a new NASA effort to bolster the commercial orbital transportation business.

Those were some of the messages from experts in passenger space travel who took part in the Space Technology and Applications International Forum (STAIF) Feb. 12-16.

Because of the success of the Ansari X Prize in 2004, there are already waiting lists of customers eager for a trip into suborbital space, even at price tags in the range of $150,000 per trip, said Derek Webber, director of Spaceport Associates in Rockville, Md.

“The orbital space tourism experience is, however, much harder to provide,” Webber said. “It is harder technically because of the higher kinetic energy trajectories that need to be flown, and it is harder commercially because significantly fewer potential travelers will be able to afford the prices for such missions, expected to be in the order of $10 million per trip.”

Webber said suborbital passenger travel is well on the way with groups like Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Rocketplane. “So I have turned my attention to orbital, which of course is where many of the benefits are to be found — if it can be done,” he said .

“It will be beneficial to the whole aerospace sector for a successful orbital space tourism industry to develop,” he added . “It will enable new levels of cost into orbit and reliability and reusability to be obtained that will benefit all space sectors. It will generate billions of dollars in business.”

Webber said he is hopeful that NASA’s new effort to purchase Commercial Orbital Transportation Services — called COTS — will stimulate orbital space tourism.

NASA has established the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston as part of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. That office is to evaluate COTS proposals.

NASA intends to enter into agreements with private industry to develop and demonstrate the vehicles, systems and operations needed to resupply, return cargo from, and transport crew to and from a human space facility, with the international space station providing the representative requirements for such a facility.

Webber said the idea is to build something to satisfy NASA’s need to get U.S. astronauts up to the space station , and then use it for orbital tourism when not being used by NASA.

Scott Horowitz, NASA associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, said NASA prefers to buy services from commercial vendors “rather than have to develop and build everything ourselves.” NASA issued a COTS solicitation in January and proposals are due to be turned in to the space agency soon , Horowitz said .

“We thought originally we’d get maybe a dozen or so people proposing to provide commercial crew and cargo transportation services,” Horowitz said . It now appears that NASA will review some 90 different proposals in response to the competition, he said .

Adventure travel

Jane Reifert, president of Incredible Adventures Inc., based in Sarasota, Fl a., said catering to today’s adventure travelers and their dreams, desires and demographics is critical to the expansion of the civilian space industry.

“The individuals who will fill the space planes and space hotels of the future will bear little resemblance to the camera-toting tourists who crowd theme parks and cruise ships,” Reifert said . “They will, however, look very much like the doctors, lawyers, computer professionals and business owners who are flying jet fighters, floating in zero-gravity and diving with sharks today.”

Reifert’s advice: “Anyone developing a civilian space enterprise should look to those who pioneered the adventure travel industry for guidance.”

For the most part, Reifert said , those now promoting a five-star space tourism experience are painting a rosy and optimistic picture, one that is based on thousands of flights with long lines of tourists hungry to head for space.

“But the reality is … that might not happen,” Reifert said. Her experience is that things never quite jell as easily or as well as you think they will, urging public space travel advocates to base the business on realistic expectations.

“Nobody really knows anything,” Reifert said, noting that there are a number of uncertainties such as when the necessary spaceships will be ready for flight and how government regulations will shape the space tourism market.

“It has to be presented as such to customers … that they too are in this same new, brave and exciting field with you,” she said.