Problems still clouding skies for space travel

By Chris Dalby Source:Global Times Published: 2016-3-28 15:48:01

Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT

Space tourism is set to be the next big frontier, as tickets come down from the millions to the hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. While this still prices the overwhelming majority out of the market, it does open a space for wealthier Chinese customers. In 2014, around 30 Chinese customers had already paid for one-hour experiences into space, setting out from the Mojave desert.

However, do they really need to go all that way? Companies like Virgin and XCOR Aerospace have offices in Asia but they will soon be competing against Chinese rivals. Ranging from rocket programs to getting to space by balloon, the Chinese space tourism market should be set to blast off. However, a few problems are clouding the skies.

Predictably, given the six-figure price tag, Chinese operators are targeting well-heeled members of society. In 2014, XCOR Aerospace reported that over 30 Chinese citizens had already paid for tickets.

According to their Chinese agent, 10 percent of all bookings come from China. In an interview with the New York Times, Alex Tang, XCOR's director in Asia, said China was particularly important, as there are "wealthy people everywhere in the world, but there are not so many wealthy people who also dream of going into space."

A similar attempt by Dutch company Space Expedition Corps (SXC) to find Chinese space-farers spread across Taobao like wildfire in June 2014, with 305 trips sold in the first few minutes, at a price of 599,999 yuan ($92,094). At the time, the flights were set to happen in the last months of 2015. Since then, they have been repeatedly pushed back.

Long delays are beginning to put a crimp on these plans. Whether Chinese or American, few wealthy individuals will remain giddy at the opportunity of going into space for long if they fork over $100,000 or more without any idea of when that flight might happen.

Furthermore, another more disturbing obstacle also threatens to delay Chinese space travelers. While XCOR has planned potential flights from the Caribbean island of Curacao, for the moment, most commercial space flights would take off from the US. This means that any companies acting there would be subject to American national security laws.

In January 2014, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic announced that it would not be accepting any Chinese customers for its first commercial space flights.

According to the company, its rocket engines are considered to be "military-grade technology," which under decades-old laws, are protected against potential arms trafficking. As such, it is considered dangerous for citizens from potential enemies, such as China, to have access to this technology and potentially retro-engineering them. Now, it seems implausible for even China's foremost engineer to understand the specs of an engine well enough to rebuild it simply by sitting in a craft powered by that engine. Furthermore, spending over $100,000 to fly to space and spending the entire journey focused on working out thrust-to-weight ratios seems a bit of a waste of money. 

While delays in the last two years have left this question in limbo, should potential Chinese customers continue to worry? After all, this law has not changed in the meantime and this matter may only be resolved once the likes of Virgin Galactic, SXC and XCOR actually begin to ready their first commercial flights.

Another option is for a Chinese competitor to emerge. For years, this seemed unlikely, given the head start that American firms had taken. With travel to the US now easier, those who could afford it around the world would make the trip to the Mojave Desert.

However, as delays continue to pile on and outdated laws threaten to bar people from certain countries, now would be the time for a daring Chinese alternative to present itself.

This would certainly be tricky. Aerospace has been an area where the Chinese government has traditionally been cautious about private involvement. Space travel is even more sensitive.

However, mounting pressure from a growing band of customers and the chance for lucrative business may make this happen sooner rather than later.

The author is a Mexico-based analyst of Chinese politics and economics.

Posted in: Columnists

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