Astronaut Leroy Chiao talks about his current job as director at Excalibur Almaz, a firm that plans to shoot paying customers into outer space within the next few years.
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Leroy Chiao on Commercial Space Flights 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