Japan Plans for Space Tourism

By Andy Nimmo

Kankoh-maruMost of you will be aware of the involvement of Hilton Hotels, British Airways and Virgin with the Japanese, regarding a space hotel, but you may not realize the work the Japanese have already put into their space tourism plans. Since 1993, the Japanese Rocket Society have been working very hard indeed on their Kankoh-maru SSTO VTOL, a vehicle designed to carry 50 people up to space at a time from more or less any airport anywhere.

Members of their Transport Research Committee included staff from Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Fuji Heavy Industries, Ishikawajima Harima Heavy Industries, Nissan Motor Company, All Nippon Airways, Teisan, Japan Aircraft Development Corporation and the Japan Institute for Space and Astronautical Science.

In 1997, they announced at a conference in Nagasaki, that they'd costed the first 4 such vehicles and 1200 flight-tests (including financing) as approximately US $12 billion, and the selling price as about US $630 million per vehicle. They were estimating its manufacturing costs based on a nominal production scenario of 52 vehicles over 7 years.

The initial 4 vehicles would perform the 1200 test-flights over a 3-year period in order to obtain normal aircraft airworthiness certification for passenger carrying. After this the production phase begins with a rate of production of 4 Kankoh-maru vehicles a year for two years, followed by production of 8 vehicles per year for 5 years. The 4 test vehicles would then be refurbished for passenger carrying in the first year of production and operation.

The Kankoh-maru cost estimate is based to a large extent on the development cost of the H2 rocket, of which development was successfully completed by NASDA in 1994. The development of the H2-A, based on the H2, is currently under way, and its manufacturing cost is planned to be less than 50% of the H2 which it will replace.

Market research performed in Japan since 1993 and in Canada, Germany and USA in 1995, shows a global market of as many as 1 million passengers a year seems feasible if the price of a flight can be brought down to about $20,000 - that's £12,500 per person (at $1.60 to the pound).

In view of this, the JRS Space Tourism Business Research Committee was formally approved in April 1995, and meetings were held monthly thereafter. Attendees included staff of Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Dentsu Communications, Shimizu Corporation, the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, Tokyo University, Teisan, Rocket Systems Company and retired experts from Chiyoda Corporation and All Nippon Airways.

Their conclusions were that this would involve tens of flights per day. That is less than 0.1% of commercial aviation, now at around 3 million passengers per day, but space travel will nevertheless become a relatively large-scale activity, and an "ordinary" means of travel for members of the public.

They felt it would be best if flights to orbit take off from ordinary airports between airline flights to terrestrial destinations rather than from specially built spaceports, as at present. They therefore considered what airport modifications would be required to permit Kankoh-maru operations, such as including cryogenic propellant facilities; a dedicated Departure and Landing Facility; passenger handling arrangements; compliance with noise regulations; integration into air traffic management systems, and other matters.

One of their conclusions was that even a traffic level of 1 million passengers a year requires only some 60 flights a day world-wide, so the number of flights from any one airport would be very few compared to airline flights and accordingly, if carefully timed, noise should not be a major problem. The Committee is considering certain airports around the world as candidates for case studies as first-generation space tourism service sites. Prestwick in Scotland, may well be one of these.

As each vehicle's life is to be 10 years, a constant production rate of 8 Kankoh-maru vehicles per year entails a growth rate of flight activities of 2,400 flights per year each year, or some 100,000 passengers per year. In this case the production of cryogenic propellants will grow by approximately 1,000,000 tons per year, of which some 140,000 tons per year is liquid hydrogen.

Because of the high cost of transporting LOX relative to its production cost it was concluded that it would be most economical for LOX to be produced on site at the airport, using the local electricity supply. LH2 would be imported in tankers from low-cost suppliers such as Canada and Australia. For this reason also, airports sited on artificial islands or beside the sea seem particularly suitable for Kankoh-maru operations.

Sets of engine spare parts replaced during overhaul, assumed necessary every 100 flights, will increase by 288 sets (ie 3 x 96) per year per year to 1800 sets per year once 50 Kankoh-maru are in operation, providing scope for cost reduction through automation. Launch vehicle manufacturers, rocket engine and aerospace component makers, propellant producers and materials companies will all participate in the cash-flows received from the public by the vehicle operating companies.

Space HotelNew business opportunities will arise for companies providing investment, insurance, leasing, banking, marketing, media and law services. Growing at a rate of 100,000 customers per year per year, such a service would grow within a few years to generate annual revenues of more than US $10 billion. This is where this scenario really pays off, because an infusion of new life into the aerospace industry of participating countries is particularly desirable as the aerospace industry around the world has been contracting sharply since the end of the Cold War.

One of the big problems with spaceflight today is that about 50 expendable rockets are made per year, which launch about 50 satellites, earning revenues of some $3-4 billion a year worldwide. Although small business by comparison with car manufacturing, in which many individual companies earn more than $30 billion a year, this is relatively stable. If a single reusable launch vehicle is made which can launch one satellite a week, expendable launch vehicle makers would have no more business. In the absence of large new markets, it is thus clearly against the corporate interests of existing makers to develop a reusable launch vehicle.

However, operating Kankoh-maru fleets like airlines to serve the enormous demand for passenger travel to orbit will generate revenues many times greater than the current launch market, and will enable the launch industry to escape from this obstacle to the growth of space activities.

A large majority of those who wish to travel to space stated in the surveys that they would prefer to stay in orbit for several days rather than for only a few hours. A few hundred thousand passengers per year staying in orbit for even 2 or 3 days on average will create a simultaneous orbital population of several thousand guests - and an additional population of more than 1000 hotel staff. Preliminary cost estimates show that this new business activity of orbital accommodation services will also grow to a substantial scale.

In addition to launch service providers and propellant producers, the new businesses of architecture, construction, component production, interior design, building utilities, food, drink and entertainment services will all participate in the cash-flows of the companies operating accommodation in Earth orbit.

In 1996 a development path for space tourism services was conceptualized at NASDA through four phases - low Earth orbit, highly elliptical orbits with apogees providing views of distant Earth, orbital accommodation, and lunar excursions, and in early 1997 as part of a NASDA study of the potential for popularization of space activities, the development of space hotels was considered.

In May 1996 the $10 million "X Prize" was announced for the first private company to transport people safely to an altitude of 100 km twice within a period of two weeks. This has generated considerable press interest, and to date entries from 15 different companies have been announced. In September the Space Tourism Society was established in Los Angeles, and its first international symposium was held in 1998.

Fare-paying guests will require higher levels of both comfort and safety than astronaut and cosmonaut facilities to date. The Japanese say these new requirements include normal features of hotels such as private bedrooms with windows and bathrooms, communal dining-rooms, lounges, bars and "karaoke-boxes", rooms with large windows for looking outside, and entertainment facilities such as zero-gravity play-rooms.

I particularly wish to give many thanks to Patrick Collins and Kohki Isozaki for the assistance of their paper on the Japan Rocket Society's Space Tourism Study, given at the 1997 Nagasaki conference, for much of the above information.