By Nyshka Chandran
The commercial space industry is dominated by Western heavyweights, such as Elon Musk's SpaceX, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin. But players in Asia say they aren't worried about that competition.
As corporate spending eclipses government activity throughout the global space sector, Japan's PD Aerospace and China's Kuang-Chi Science are among Asia's homegrown private firms planning to offer spaceflight services to civilians.
PD Aerospace - Koike Terumasa Design & Aerospace
Shuji Ogawa, CEO of PD Aerospace, acknowledges that it's unlikely Asian companies can rival SpaceX, Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin, but he said there's more than enough demand to go around.
"When we have reached their present stage, they will have advanced further," he said. "Space tourism is a universal dream, not only for Japanese but for all people. It is important for us to view the Earth from space."
His Nagoya-based company is currently developing a reusable sub-orbital space plane featuring a propulsion system that alternates between jet and rocket mode. It's expected to carry eight people — two pilots and six passengers — over 100 kilometers above the Earth. The Kármán line, which lies 100 km above sea level, is the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and outer space.
PD Aerospace says it intends to conduct its first trial in 2020, with the hope of commencing tourism operations in 2023. Because Japan is small, securing testing areas has been a challenge, Ogawa said. The initial price tag for a trip is set at 14 million yen ($126,639) but Ogawa intends to eventually lower the cost to 398,000 yen ($3,600). "We want to offer space tours to ordinary people."
In comparison, Virgin Galactic charges $250,000 for a voyage designed to exceed 100 km in altitude, according the company's website. Meanwhile, a trip to Mars — 54.6 million kilometers from Earth — could cost $200,000 with SpaceX. Blue Origin has yet to reveal pricing details.
Those figures would mark a significant reduction from previous spaceflight costs.
In 2011, the world's first space tourist, American Dennis Tito, paid $20 million to travel to the International Space Station (ISS), which typically orbits 350 km above the Earth. In 2008, England-born Richard Garriott de Cayeux paid $30 million to spend 12 days on the ISS. More recently, SpaceX announced it will fly two individuals to the moon next year but didn't reveal how much the duo would be forking out.
In December, PD Aerospace received 20.4 million yen from ANA Holdings, Japan's largest airline group, and 30 million yen from one of the country's leading travel agencies H.I.S. for a 7 and 10.3 percent stake, respectively. Ogawa said more funding was in the pipeline but couldn't reveal any details.
Near space travel
"There is one very realistic factor that makes Asia the perfect market for space tourism: Asia is a heavily populated continent and in most cities, traffic gridlock is a headache," Liu Ruopeng, chairman of Kuang-Chi Science, told CNBC.
"There is one very realistic factor that makes Asia the perfect market for space tourism: Asia is a heavily populated continent and in most cities, traffic gridlock is a headache."
The Shenzhen-based firm has built a capsule attached to a giant helium balloon that's capable of taking six passengers anywhere from 20 to 100 km above Earth — an area known as near space.
"Near space is a highly undeveloped area and has great potential. Here, passengers don't need to be trained like astronauts to be physically qualified to travel. Everyone can go," said 34-year-old Liu.
Called the "Traveler," the platform can also collect meteorological and agricultural data, deliver high-speed wireless network coverage and conduct high-precision ground monitoring. Ticket prices have yet to be decided, but Liu said the initial cost would be much lower than current prices.
The Traveler has already undergone two unmanned test runs since 2015 — the second of which housed a live turtle — and a third is scheduled for later this year, according to the company. It hopes to complete a trial with humans on board by 2020.
Like Ogawa, Liu doesn't view other spaceflight players as rivals — he calls them "complementary companies." A Duke University graduate, Liu was especially confident on demand from his home country. "People in China have witnessed great changes in their life in recent years. More and more Chinese travel abroad and one day, they will travel to space...Consumers are looking forward to this."
Space is just one of the many sectors in Kuang-Chi Science's portfolio. Aside from the Traveler, the firm has also manufactured jetpacks for personal transportation, emergency rescue and military use. It also boasts a clean energy powered vehicle designed to transport goods to remote areas, with more flexibility than airplanes and a payload of 30 tons.
These ambitions have earned Liu the nickname "Elon Musk of China."
"Musk and I actually focus on different areas, but we are both innovators trying to expand possibilities for humans," he said.
Elsewhere in Asia
Outside of North Asia however, private space tourism has yet to take off.
Companies in India, Asia's third-largest economy, lack the long-term vision for space tourism, according to Ajay Lele, senior fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, and author of "Asian Space Race: Rhetoric or Reality?"
"Indian private industry is too profit driven and not yet capable of putting big ideas in reality like SpaceX."
Malaysia's Independence-X, meanwhile, is the sole private space company in Southeast Asia. It's currently participating in the Google Lunar XPrize, a global competition for firms seeking to land a robotic spacecraft on the moon by end-2017.
If more Asian countries wish to develop a space tourism market, they should look to their respective private sectors for help, Lele warned. "There is a requirement for governments to do some hand-holding. But there is also a need for the private industry to be bold and make its own investments too."