Flights and training occur out of the Russian locations of Star City, a once highly classified facility, and Zhukovsky Air Base. Orbital and sub-orbital flights land at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The company works in conjunction with Rosaviakosmos, the Russian Aviation and Space Agency (RASA) to train and certify paying travelers for space flight as well as NASA, and has various exclusivity agreements with the Russian agency. It states that paying customers represent every habitable continent.
To date the only successful company to create and fly any RLV for a sub-orbital trip is Scaled Composites. On 21 June 2004, the company financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen successfully sent test pilot Mike Melvil and Scaled Composite’s reusable launch vehicle, SpaceShipOne, into sub-orbital space and back. (Space Adventures’ $98,000 sub-orbital flights are scheduled for 2005 to 2006. The company reports 100 paid reservations to date.)
The Ansari X Prize is an American contest to meet the challenge of creating an RLV capable of carrying the general public into space by offering $10 million to the first private company that can successfully accomplish the feat. It follows in the traditions of aviation incentive contests offered between 1905 and 1935, which helped to create technology and process for today’s air transport industry. To win the competition, an RLV must be built that can “accommodate three passengers, travel to an altitude of 62.5 miles above Earth and make the journey twice within a two-week period.”
In September of this year, Virgin CEO Richard Branson announced US$ 100 million plans to provide commercial space travel as early as 2007 with his new company, Virgin Galactic. Tickets will cost $190,000 on the five seat sub-orbital spacecraft and include a three-day pre-flight training and a flight that lasts two to three hours with less than five minutes in space. Seven thousand earthlings have reportedly already reserved a seat on Virgin Galactic for its planned 2007 to 2012 launch.
Of course if you’re heading for space, you’re eventually going to need a place to stay. Virgin is already talking about a Virgin hotel but other companies are deep into planning the first space resorts and cities, also known as commercial space stations. Space Island Group is one such company that according to its website “will provide services, training, ground operations, communications and launch facilities for commercial space traffic and space stations where research and manufacturing facilities will coexist with plush resort hotels in orbit.”
Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo (WATG) architects and design consultants for the hospitality, leisure and entertainment industries reportedly have designs in progress for a space resort and airship hotel commissioned by Virgin Galactic. Meanwhile, Bigelow Aerospace, founded by Budget Suites of America hotels owner Robert Bigelow, aspires to make "habitable space stations affordable for corporate communities."
But a place to stay quickly turns sour when there’s nothing to do. So now even entertainment is in the works. Among various proposals is another Space Island Group idea. The company in partnership with non-profit Spaceweek International Association are developing a national competition this fall asking high school students across the US to create sports that can be played inside a zero-gravity Space Island Sports Arenas by 2010 with the ability to be broadcast worldwide (or perhaps, universally). Students are asked to specify game rules including scoring, equipment, uniforms and even lighting and camera placement.
While Space Adventures is the only company to successfully send private individuals to orbital space, and no company has yet to launch posh galactic accommodations much less econo-motels, the business competition is already heating up. Virgin Galactic will compete with Space Adventures, and there is currently at least one company, Zero Gravity Corporation (ZERO-G), offering zero gravity flights out of Florida at a bargain rate of $2,950 using specially modified Boeing 727-200 aircraft. Even Hilton Hotels has reportedly discussed the possibility of building or co-funding a space hotel in 15 to 20 years time.
With the evolution of creating and establishing a new industry and product/service category comes a huge amount of brand promotion, category education and P.T. Barnum-like declarations of what the future may hold if you invest a nickel (or in this case $20 million) in the dream.
Despite lofty vision statements of sending everyone who desires to go into space, the present reality is that only an elite few with considerable liquid wealth, excellent health and physical fitness, and an unsullied reputation are the primary target paying audience. (The “unsullied reputation” is to pass muster with NASA. The health and fitness is disputed by Burt Rutan, US aviation pioneer and designer of SpaceShipOne, who denies that youth and fitness will be essential to entry.)
With such a narrow target audience, does it even pay to promote or advertise? According to Space Adventure’s Volmer, public relations—not advertising—is key. “You take any company [that] is not established and doesn’t have $100 million marketing budget… public relations with a viable pr program is crucial to its success,” states Volmer. “Second is word of mouth from the people who have actually participated in our space experiences. There are a lot of referrals. These are the keys to our overall success.”
The other significant component to Space Adventure’s brand building plan is corporate programs and partnerships. Some consumer product/service companies are leveraging space trips for promotional and incentive purposes. In July of this year, a Brazilian woman won a Volkswagen-sponsored competition to take a trip to the edge of space, 100 km above the Earth. She'll have to train in special zero gravity conditions before she takes the flight with Space Adventures two years from now. Partnerships with US Air and American Express currently allow program members to redeem air miles or Membership Rewards points for Space Adventures flights.
Other corporations are using the less-expensive zero-gravity flights as opportunities for “team-building exercises.” Space Adventures’ Volmer acknowledges that much of the company’s revenue base is reliant on corporate partnerships and corporate travel purchases such as for future sub-orbital flights. He predicts that close to half of the company’s revenue over the next two to three years will come from the corporate side versus the consumer.
What is interesting and rather ironic for an industry modeling itself after tourism is that at this juncture as well as for the near future, luxury price points do not translate to a luxurious experience—in fact it’s anything but. Current space travel requires excellent physical and psychological health, commitment to intensive training and traveling in and out of Russia as well as both the scrutiny and blessings of NASA. The process and flight itself are not only time and money intensive but physically demanding as well. It’s more about an extreme thrill ride for adults—a far cry from the posh environs of Concord in its day.
Dave Hurlbert, branding consultant formerly with Addison and Landor, says, “What Concord was selling was luxury and glamour. [It] was the ultimate travel experience similar to this [proposition]. The difference is Space Adventures is not luxurious—it’s rigorous. You have no sensual satisfaction, as you would say on a cruise ship where you have plenty of food, entertainment, room, etc. I think the space tourism term is misleading.”
There is little question that space tourism as defined by its own industry is an aspirational promise of what could be, tapping into universal childhood dreams of soaring past the stars in a spaceship. What will be remains to be seen especially as the FAA, US Congress and international agencies step in to regulate the industry. In the meantime, the branding race has already begun.