Astronaut Leroy Chiao is a veteran of four space missions, recently acting as Commander of Expedition 10 aboard the International Space Station. He has logged over 229 days in space - over 36 hours of which were spent in Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA, or spacewalks). He served as a member of the White House appointed Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee.
Dr. Chiao left NASA in 2005 and is involved in entrepreneurial business ventures and works in the US, China, Japan and Russia. He is a director of Excalibur Almaz, a private manned spaceflight company. In addition, he is a director of InNexus, a biotechnology/pharmaceutical development company. Active as a consultant and public speaker, he also serves as the Chairman of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute User Panel, which is attached to the Baylor College of Medicine. Dr. Chiao is a director of Challenger Center and of the Committee of 100. He is also an advisor and spokesman for the Heinlein Prize Trust.
Question: Why did you leave NASA?
Leroy Chiao: Oh, I left NASA about four years ago. I was there for fifteen years. I had flown four missions, three times on shuttles and as we were discussing, I was the Commander of the International Space Station having flown up and down on the Russian Soyuz. I'd done six space walks, four in the American suit, two in the Russian suit. Helped build the International Space Station, and so in a flying career, I couldn't have asked for more. It was a very fulfilling career. And you know, when I started, I never thought I would leave. It was something I had wanted to do since I was a kid and why wouldn't I stay there and be an astronaut as long as I could, as long as they kept letting me fly.
But an interesting thing happens. After my long mission especially, I felt very fulfilled flight wise and I guess an analogy would be that if you go out and have a big night's dinner, you're kind of full for awhile. So, I don't miss it yet, but I'm sure some day I will. But I wanted to do other things in my life. I thought, well I was about to turn 45 at the time and I thought if I was going to go do something else, now is the time to do it and so I decided to jump out and try different things.
One of the things, and the most exciting, actually definitely the most exciting thing is, having children. You know, I didn't have children before. I had been married only a year before my space station mission, so having three-year-olds is a whole new experience and that's the new adventure. It may sound funny because people have kids every day, but having your own kids, having my own kids, was as fundamentally, or maybe even more fundamentally life changing then even flying in space.
Question: How much does a recreational trip to space cost?
Leroy Chiao: Well, the capsule is designed for three people and so, our first flights would be two paying customers and one professional in the center seat, a professional commander. So, we'd be selling two spots. As far as timetable goes, we are hoping to have our first flight sometime in 2013, so that's coming up pretty quickly, and we're marching along trying to make that deadline, or goal, I should say.
The cost? The current market cost for a space flight, about a week in space and about six people have gone with the Russians so far to the International Space Station; it costs about $30 to $35 million. So, it's not for the faint of heart. But our own market studies that we've commissioned as well as some public market studies all indicate that there are somewhere around 20 or so individuals every year who have both the means and the interest to do this. So, the market is definitely out there. [00:26:47.00]
Question: What is Richard Branson offering in space?
Leroy Chiao: Richard Branson is probably the most visible of the private commercial space guys, and what is venture, Virgin Galactic is about is sub orbital flight. That is, you'll see a spacecraft that looks more or less like an airplane and it will fly into space, but only spend about 15 minutes. It'll go up in a parabolic arc and then fall back down, and so the customers on that flight will only get about five minutes of weightlessness. They'll get to glimpse the horizon of the Earth, take a look at it before just before they start coming back down into the atmosphere.
The cost of the ride on that, I think he's advertising right now is about $200,000. And so, it's a neat thing to do, but it's not orbital flight.
Orbital flight takes much more energy to get into Earth orbit. Let's see, he probably needs to get up to Mach 3 for speed to get up to that altitude. To get into orbit, you've got to go to Mach 25. So, it's a factor of a little more than eight more speed wise. So, if you calculate the amount of energy, it's quite a bit more energy to get into space, in to orbit.
So, that's where we're operating, is orbital adventures. We would offer five to seven days in low Earth orbit aboard our own spacecraft where customers would have the view of the Earth; get to experience really living in space, probably conducting some scientific investigations that we would piggyback onto those flights. So, they would have the whole experience, kind of a mini-experience of what professional astronauts have.
Question: What does it take to become a space tourist?
Leroy Chiao: Right. The Russians right now require a customer coming in and spending about six months or so in Russia and they have to learn some Russian. They have to learn some critical words so they can, you know, in an emergency they can at least have minimum communication with the Russian commander of the Soyuz, or something like that. They also have to learn systems and I think this just evolved that way. I think they just thought, what is the minimum set of things we think we can train someone to be more or less competent in our systems? And so that's what these guys go through. So, it's not just like buying a ticket and getting on an airliner. Not at all.
What we hope to do is kind of bring that down little bit to where it is a little bit more like that, but you're still really not just a customer. It'll take about a month, we think, to train for our system and we'll teach the customer the minimum set of things that he or she needs to keep themselves safe. How to operate your pressure suit, what to do in an emergency, which is mostly listen to the Commander, where the critical items are, and were the fire extinguisher is located and things like that. But we think about a month is a reasonable amount of time that people with this kind of schedule that they probably have will be able to take you to be able to do this if they really wanted to.
I think you cut your customer pull down quite a bit if you say, "Okay, you gotta spend six months with us." You know, these folks are busy; they've got businesses to run and other things. So, I hope that we will actually help to expand the market.
Question: What makes space travel expensive?
Leroy Chiao: Well, really, the expense of getting into space is the rocket launch, the rocket itself. Rocket's right now, commercial rockets cost probably somewhere between $50, or $120, or $150 million per launch. And those are all expendable. That is, you've got to buy a new rocket for each launch. So, that really is the critical part. If we could bring the price of rockets down somehow, that would help to bring space travel more to – bring the price of an experience in space down from the $35 million it is today, the market price of $35 million, down to something less.
If there was some kind of really, a revolutionary breakthrough and the price of rockets fell by an order of magnitude, I mean, just imagine what that would do as far as getting access to more ordinary people.
The problems though is that rockets, although conceptually simple, you know, fire come out one end and it launches a payload into space on the other end, is simple. But really they're very complicated. If you think about the energy that a rocket engine has to put out and all the fuel and you're sitting on top of like a bomb. And on the Space Shuttle, that big orange tank is filled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, the white cell rocket boosters on the sides are filled with solid propellant. So, there's a lot of energy in all those chemicals there and you've got to control it in a way so it doesn't explode, but actually expend that energy to get you up into space. So, there's a lot of plumbing, a lot of valving, a lot of control systems, and it's a very complicated thing. So, how do you bring the price of that down
Well, some companies are trying to develop their own rockets and they think they've got a better way, and I hope they're successful because we at Excalibur Almaz are not building rockets. We would be a customer, and if there would become a less expensive rocket that was reliable, we would certainly want to buy that rocket and fly our spacecraft on it.
Other companies are looking at other innovative things to do, Excalibur Almaz, we're looking at possibly using rockets that currently aren't being used for manned launches. There's a rocket called the Zenit, and a company called Sea Launch, which is currently in bankruptcy that we've been in talked with and there's some possibilities there, maybe using some of that infrastructure later on. And so, we are very acutely aware of the problem of the cost of launching people into space and the fact is, it's focused on the rocket and we're trying to be innovative and look at all markets and all possibilities to find a way to bring that price down
Question: Are most space programs government-funded?
Leroy Chiao: Well, by at large, they are all government. And the big players right now are the United States, Russia, and China. We're the only three countries in the world that can launch astronauts into space. Now, around the world, mostly in the U.S. you see some companies like Excalibur Almaz and a few others who are trying to launch private commercial people into space, but nobody's done it yet. The only private vehicle that’s made it into space so far is Spaceship 1 in 2004, and that was an effort that was funded by one of the Microsoft founders, and he spent, I think it was published that he spent about $20 million to develop this spacecraft to do a sub-orbital flight. And like I said earlier, it's not the same as going into orbit, but it was a huge first step.
It showed that a private commercial venture could actually build a spacecraft and get someone into space. And so, I think that was a big milestone, a big boost psychologically for everyone working in this field and it sure got me excited. It was right before I went to the space station and it got me thinking about possibilities in private commercial space.
Question: Where do you envision private commercial space travel in 2020?
Leroy Chiao: 2020, let's see, I hope by then we'll have regular access to space commercially. My hope is that we will find someway to bring the price of rockets down. You know, another thing that I didn't mention about the rockets is that if you increase the number of rockets you build and you buy, then it's the scale of the economy, the price is going to come down. It may not come down in order of magnitude, but if several commercial ventures start being successful and there becomes a bigger market for these rockets, the price will naturally come down a bit.
And that's why I think Excalibur Almaz, we're a little bit unique in that we don't look at our so-called competition with disdain, we want them to succeed because this market needs to succeed and for that to happen, it needs to have more than one player and certainly the market is big enough that even if we are successful beyond our wildest dreams, we couldn't handle the entire market ourselves.
Recorded on December 16, 2009
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