The space race is on, but this time it’s about space tourism. Virgin Galactic, Space Adventures, Space X.. for those with the desire AND a huge disposable income. It looks likely these companies could be launching into space around 2015. But what about the rest of us?
Prices for commercial space flights will start dropping as it becomes more commonplace, but that’s still some time away. For the average American who dreamed of space, but has zero chance of being an astronaut, there are few options. Maybe by learning how to be an appropriate space tourist.
Tourists normally need certain things like a passport, sun-tan lotion, bug spray. What they don’t need is scuba dive training and zero gravity certification. But that’s just what space tourists will need to survive.
Kevin Heath, founder of Waypoint2Space, saw a gap in the market. His company's mission is to “focus on training the tourist that would need to go up. The space market is all about tourism and commercial launches; nobody was looking at the tourist training.”
Waypoint2Space calls itself “astronaut training” for tourists, and is set to open this summer, teaching future space tourists how to handle space environments. It costs $45,000 for one week of "level one" training (he offers three levels). Based out of Houston, Waypoint2Space rents offices from NASA in the Johnson Space Center. All training however, is scheduled to take place at an offsite facility which is still being furnished.
But on Waypoint2Space’s website it currently says, “We are proud to be leading the evolution of Commercial Spaceflight Training through our collaboration with NASA centers." But so far, no such agreements have been signed with NASA.
“We’re two weeks away with signing a deal from them,” Heath said. “But we have been two weeks away since May last year.” However, renting NASA property does not mean working with NASA.
Waypoint2Space was just accredited with the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) safety approval however, which is the first step to a potential NASA agreement. An official from the FAA confirmed this.
“We want to use the same equipment that NASA uses to train astronauts,” Heath said.
Heath said that getting FAA approval took longer than expected, and Waypoint2Space will need to move its training camps back two months to around June 2014 to accommodate. The website is not updated, as it still states that classes will start in Spring 2014.
Keith Cowing from NASAWatch is unsure whether Waypoint2Space can deliver on its claims. He wrote that Heath confirmed to him that “JSC Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) has declined to work with them but that the JSC Engineering Directorate was interested. As stated earlier, I find it somewhat perplexing to see how NASA can support a company offering astronaut training when the very part of NASA (MOD) that does such things declines to participate.”
Cowing, who writes extensively about NASA, has raised many concerns about the validity of the Waypoint2Space astronaut training program.
“If you go to this page this page one of the images that rotates though is the Saturn V at JSC - but it is shown as it was 10 years ago (outside) not inside is new education center. Another image shows an artist's concept of a new three story building onsite at JSC that is "coming soon" yet NASA sources at JSC know nothing about this building. On this page one of the photos shows someone in an EVA suit training the large pool at JSC. There is simply no way that this is going to happen, he wrote in another blog post.
Cowing’s commenters are angry at the lack of transparency Waypoint2Space offers. Clint Hall wrote, “This is bordering on FRAUD. I believe that JSC needs to disassociate itself with this sort of enterprise that only tries to cheapen the dignity of our space program by turning it into a dog and pony show. NASA and our space program are now in a most precarious state of affairs and no one needs to be connecting itself to NASA, and implying that they are a part of the program and are training people for real space flight.”
Heath doesn’t agree that his company is fraudulent. But what will Heath give customers exactly?
“We have gravity offset equipment, we have acrobatic flights and parabolic flights. We ordered gravity offset equipment that simulates walking on the moon, and that will be delivered soon.”
Currently there is no centrifuge - which is what NASA uses to simulate artificial gravity on earth.
“Ultimately our long term facility will have one,” Heath said. “We are launching Level 1 suborbital now, and when we launch level 2 we will have a centrifuge.”
35-year-old Georgia native, Marcus Sullivan, has been a lifelong space fan. “It would be the ultimate experience to go into space, the ultimate field trip,” he said. Sullivan may never have the quarter million dollars needed for Virgin Galactic, but Waypoint2Space might be an achievable dream. “Even if I couldn’t go to space, having training would still be exciting.” However Sullivan needs certain things for “training” to be worthwhile. ”I would need to have centrifuges and zero gravity training as part of the course,” he said.
And that doesn’t look too likely at Waypoint2Space right now.
But Heath said he has a plan. “The class sizes will be small, around 12 a group," (due to the number of space suits he can provide; with only 13 he can’t accommodate people with different shapes). “”We have one small, three mediums and four large,” he said. ”We can’t have 12 basketball players in the same week, we have no capacity for that.”
But do you really need to train for a week (Level 1) , or eight weeks (Level 3 at Waypoint2Space) to go into space? The current programs offered by Virgin Galactic include training and last 3 days. Why would you need more - especially if you have paid already?
“If you are spending a quarter of a million dollars to go orbital we want it to be enjoyable,” said Heath. “So that when you go in you know what forces you will face and you are fully prepared. Also, there's a liability standpoint, can you really determine in 3 days whether they are capable to be in those vehicles?“
Heath isn’t the only person offering commercial spaceflight trainings. AstroWright (who offer a mix of training) Sirius , The Nastar center (which also trains Virgin Galactic participants) and other companies are looking to enter this market soon like Black Sky Training.
“I’m frustrated that right now, space is for government and for the rich. We want to develop a program that as realistic as possible so these people can stand toe to toe with anyone else that has been trained, authentic space training,” said Heath.
An admirable statement, but with their facilities not yet furnished with equipment, and no NASA agreement on the table, can he make this a reality, or is he just collecting a number of $45,000 checks?
*At the time of writing we had not received a response from NASA regarding Waypoint2Space.