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The dawn of a new space age



Would you take a vacation in space?




(CNN) -- CNN talks to SpaceShipOne designer and aviation pioneer Burt Rutan about the future of space tourism.

CNN: Are we at the dawn of a new space age?

Burt Rutan: I think so for sub-orbital personal space flights, which are very different from going to a resort hotel in orbit. They go outside the atmosphere to give people the view and then they give you four or five minutes of weightlessness.

We think that when the business is competitive hundreds of thousands of people will do this. I believe this service could start within about five years or so and that the safety would be at least as good as for the early airliners, which were 100 times safer than all of government manned space flight.

I do believe there will be competing spaceline operators giving an affordable service relatively early and that the business will grow much larger than people are now assuming.

But we don't have the solution yet for a safe access to orbit. I believe and I hope that, after launching a healthy, high volume business running spacelines to outside the atmosphere sub-orbitally, someone will come up with a way to make it safe enough and affordable enough.

I'm just predicting that within the next decade, after getting a good start of flying thousands of people outside the atmosphere, we'll have solutions to move in the direction of orbital flight.

CNN: Does that mean that the era of the space hotel is within reach?

BR: If you send people into orbit you have to send them to a hotel. For sub-orbital space travel you can send them in very large spacious ships with big windows where they can float around and enjoy their short time in space.

But spacecraft that go into orbit with people in them should be as small and as cramped as possible. If you put them very tightly in a small, light spaceship you can send them for a lot less money.

I believe that when we have personal space flights into orbit we'll be launching the hotels with large expendable rockets. Then we'll run people back and forth in as small a vehicle as possible so that the ride would be as affordable as possible.

I envision people being cramped into small quarters with tiny windows and spending less than a day getting there and then spending their vacations in very spacious accommodation in orbit.

CNN: What are the attractions of going into space?

BR: If you have to ask why that's attractive you probably won't be going. Those that don't want to go, they don't have to. But from young children to very old people there are a lot of people who really want to have the fun of doing that.

CNN: President Bush has talked about talked about sending American astronauts back to the moon by 2020 as a stepping-stone to future manned trips to Mars. Is that a realistic ambition?

BR: I think mankind does need to move away from where we are to explore somewhere else. The only way we've been able to survive is because we've reached out and we've taken risks to go where we didn't live before. That's our insurance against a local catastrophe wiping out our species. Certainly in the long run I think we do need to leave the earth and have settlements elsewhere.

-- Burt Rutan is the aircraft designer behind SpaceShipOne, which last year claimed the X-Prize by becoming the first privately-funded spacecraft to carry passengers into sub-orbital space.

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