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Failure to Launch

Failure to Launch

Twenty years ago, one man got a crazy idea: what if he started a loyalty program ... for space travel? But it turns out that space tourism is an industry perpetually on the brink of actually happening.

About 20 years ago, Philip Clarkson was sitting at the bar of his local pub in Honiton, in Devon, England, when a man walked in and bought everyone in the place a drink. “Thanks, but what’s the occasion?” Clarkson asked, after he’d raised his glass of wine to the man.

“I got my royalty check,” the man replied, and he showed it to Clarkson: it was for £128,000, or $215,040 then, for owning the performing rights to a somewhat popular song. The man told him that he got a similar check every six months. Clarkson, who was then in his mid-40s and a ship broker by trade, was struck: what could he do to earn money like that—money for (virtually) nothing?

A year or so later, Clarkson was again at the pub. He was thinking of that royalty check, because this time he was broke; he’d left the ship brokerage to get into house building, lost everything, and was now trying to figure out what to do next. “I was asking myself a question: how can I make money? I’m not going to do it through conventional means, especially the one that I’d been in .… I’m not going to go into the bank and say, ‘You know that half a million I owed you that went out the window—can I have another half million?’” he says. Without money to build a business, Clarkson needed an idea, an intellectual property, “something that I own that didn’t cost me anything other than the mere thinking of it.”

It was about 4:15 in the afternoon, he remembers, and he was sitting with a large gin and tonic and copies of the British newspapers, doing the crossword puzzles. “All of the sudden—call it divine inspiration—I thought of ‘space miles,’ ” he says. Like air miles, the loyalty scheme where spending money on a credit card earns points or miles that can be used toward air travel, but for space flights. “I thought it was the next thing … and then, as you do, immediately dismissed it. How could I do it? I’ve got no money, etc., etc.” That no one was actually offering commercial space flights to civilians at that point wasn’t a concern; Clarkson knew that space tourism would eventually be a thing—it had been promised since at least the 1980s—and so it would be smart to get in on the very ground floor.

The words “space miles” got stuck in his head, burrowing in to hibernate for a few months. In the meantime, Clarkson took a job with a friend and former colleague in London, ship brokering and chartering. One afternoon in 1999, he was about to step outside for a smoke break when his boss and friend joked, “Go on and think up a way we can all make money without being involved in shipping, will you?”

Of course, he already had. When he got back into the office, Clarkson sat down at the computer and went looking for evidence of the phrase “space miles.” Nothing. The next day, he headed over to the Patent Office, then on Bouverie Street in London, just around the corner from Fleet Street. For a £5 fee, he was given access to the patent registry and allowed to search everything he could think of to do with “space miles.”


“They guide you in there to say nothing to anybody about what you’re looking up, because it could be the next big trademark,” Clarkson explains. He sat quietly and flipped through file after file. “I looked up everything to do with miles—‘dog miles,’ ‘horse miles,’ ‘Wellington boot miles,’ ‘chocolate biscuit miles.’ But no ‘space miles.’” Later that afternoon, he took home a trademark registration form; a few months and several hundred pounds later, he owned the name “Space Miles.”

“Everyone said, ‘You’re mad, it’s just not going to happen,’” Clarkson remembers. But this was before Amazon’s Jeff Bezos founded aerospace manufacturer Blue Origin, in September 2000, with the express purpose of enabling humanity to escape Earth to live and work in space colonies. This was before an American businessman paid $20 million to spend nearly eight days on board the International Space Station in April 2001. Before Tesla billionaire Elon Musk launched SpaceX in 2002, in the hopes of making human beings the first “multi-planetary” species. (Musk would later joke, “Fuck Earth! Who cares about Earth?”) Before Richard Branson started Virgin Galactic in 2004, with the promise of suborbital space flights for paying customers within three years. Now, 19 years after Clarkson left the London patent office with a trademark registration form and a dream, the idea of space tourism is more an inevitability than an absurdity. “Whether that means I have particular foresight or [am] just lucky, I don’t know,” he says.

What could Clarkson do to earn money like that—money for (virtually) nothing?

The Space Miles idea involves offering putative members points toward buying a suborbital space flight. In suborbital flights, the craft reaches space but doesn’t complete a full orbit of Earth; these are—or rather, will be—the cheapest, entry-level form of space tourism. “It’s dressed up in sexy underwear, but that’s all Space Miles is,” says Clarkson. At the moment, however, Space Miles exists in name only, a trademark that Clarkson earned nearly two decades ago.

Luckily, the former ship broker and the five friends who helped him found Space Miles Holdings Ltd. in 2007 have a plan: once space tourism becomes real, get rich (relatively) quickly by selling or licensing the name and concept to someone else, or by launching the loyalty scheme themselves. And space tourism is going to happen, and soon, according to everyone from those ultrarich space entrepreneurs like Bezos and Musk to the bankers at Morgan Stanley. The only question is: will space tourism happen soon enough for Space Miles?

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The embryonic space-tourism industry has spent decades in limbo, on a regular march of false starts and nearly-theres and breathless headlines and deflated hopes. In 1978, in an op-ed for the New York Times, futurist Jerome Glenn declared that “economic development of space by private industry is about to begin,” a move that would have implications for industrialists, scientists, and citizens. Glenn, who would go on to cofound the Millennium Project, an independent think tank focused on the future, had reason to be optimistic. Less than ten years earlier, America had put a man and a flag on the moon. Five years earlier, in 1973, a crew of three humans had spent an astounding 84 days orbiting Earth in NASA’s Skylab. Over the years, both the USSR and the US had launched a flurry of landing and observatory probes to Mars, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, and the sun. Federal spending on space exploration may have plummeted—from 4.41 percent of US federal spending in 1966 to less than a percent in 1976—but NASA’s reusable spacecraft, the Space Shuttle, designed to ferry crew and equipment to orbital space labs, had just passed its first flight tests. “Great American fortunes were made in shipping, railroads, automobiles, oil, and electronics, among other things,” wrote Glenn, who called on American business leaders to invest in space industrialization, in space colonies on the moon and beyond, in manufacturing and mining sites off the planet. “The next great fortunes may be made in space.”

Over the next 20 years, fortunes were made in space, but it was in things—satellites, specifically—not people. Governments were still sending astronauts into space, but thanks to budget cuts and the increasing focus on defense systems, they weren’t traveling as far as they had before. (No human has left Earth’s orbit since the sixth and final moon landing in 1972.) And yet people—entrepreneurs and space enthusiasts, engineers and industry experts—held out hope that space travel would soon commence in earnest.

And there was always reason to hope. In 1990, Tokyo Broadcasting System spent at least $11 million (but very likely much, much more) to send one of its journalists, Toyohiro Akiyama, to the Mir space station in a Soviet-built Soyuz spacecraft, where he would spend eight days taking pictures of Earth and sending home broadcasts. In 1996, a group of space enthusiasts started the Space Tourism Society in Los Angeles, dedicated to making Glenn’s dream of off-planet Manifest Destiny a reality. It was enough of a current that in 1998, space-obsessed American engineer and entrepreneur Eric Anderson set up Space Adventures, the world’s first space-tourism agency, promising to put paying customers in space. At the same time, two American entrepreneurs formed MirCorp, partnering with the Russian space agency to lease the lifeless but still in-orbit Mir. (MirCorp later failed after the Russians decided to decommission Mir, but not before proving that a market existed.)

In April 2001, the Virginia-based Space Adventures sent its first client into space: American businessman Dennis Tito, who paid $20 million to spend eight days aboard the International Space Station, then barely a year into its working life. Between 2001 and 2009, Space Adventures sent six more tourists into space, with each person paying astronomical amounts of money, between $20 and $40 million, to do so. (Former Microsoft exec Charles Simonyi liked it so much, he did it twice.) All of them traveled on Soyuz crafts, a portion of those astronomical fees going to the Russian government to fund their space program.

From the time of Richard Nixon’s presidency, the American government had been trying to get private industry involved in space exploration to help defray costs, and by the 2000s it seemed that private industry was (finally) taking the bait: Bezos and Musk founded their companies within two years of each other, followed shortly after by Branson. And those were just the biggest names: in 2004, Mojave Aerospace Ventures won the Ansari XPRIZE, $10 million awarded to the first private company that could build and launch a manned, reusable spacecraft capable of sending three people 62 miles above Earth twice within two weeks. It was all starting to look like the brave new capitalist world above the atmosphere that Jerome Glenn had prophesied.

But then, it wasn’t. The last tourist to experience an orbital space flight on board the International Space Station was Canadian billionaire Guy Laliberté, cofounder of Cirque du Soleil, in 2009. The US had announced its decision to end the Space Shuttle program in 2004, and as the program wound down over the next seven years, NASA was forced to buy seats on Russia’s Soyuz crafts in order to complete its remaining missions. By 2011, all Russian Soyuz capsules, previously available for private hire, were needed to ferry American, Russian, and other government-funded astronauts to the International Space Station. Meanwhile, the 2014 deadline passed for winning the $20 million Google Lunar XPRIZE for the first private company that could reach the moon; it was extended four more times, until organizers quietly announced in January 2018 that it was all over. And though Virgin Galactic reportedly has sold about 650 tickets at $200,000 to $250,000 apiece, the suborbital space flights Branson promised keep getting postponed; in 2014, the company’s SpaceShipTwo crashed in the Mojave Desert during a test flight, injuring the pilot, killing the copilot, and setting the project back years.

It was all starting to look like the brave new capitalist world above the atmosphere that had been prophesied ... but then, it wasn’t.

The current state of the space-tourism industry is one of “never-ending anticipation and hope, and of an imminent start to rides into space,” according to Derek Webber, author and director of Spaceport Associates, a space-tourism consultancy firm turned think tank based in Damariscotta, Maine. Webber has spent 50 years in the commercial space industry, working as a satellite and launch-vehicle systems engineer and now, in his retirement, as an analyst of the burgeoning space-tourism industry. In the mid-2000s, Webber predicted 2012 as the year that suborbital space tourism would launch, based on what major players like Branson and Bezos were promising. That year came and went without space tourism taking off.

Still, the money keeps flowing out of Earth’s atmosphere. In November 2018, investment bank Morgan Stanley issued a report declaring that 2019 will be the “year for space,” citing “high levels of private funding” and “new frontiers in rocketry” and inviting its clients to consider taking a position. For good reason: the industry landscape looks very different now from how it did when Jerome Glenn prophesied fortunes in space, or even when Webber foretold 2012 as the year of commercial suborbital space flights.

Perhaps the biggest shift has been in technology. On February 6, 2018, 2.3 million people watched the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, with its red Tesla Roadster payload launched toward an elliptical orbit of Mars, on YouTube. But what was even more amazing was watching two of its three boosters return to the launch pad in Cape Canaveral within 1,000 feet of each other, signaling that SpaceX had nearly cracked the reusable rocket, potentially significantly lowering the costs of launching cargo and people into space. (The third landed in the Atlantic Ocean; can’t win them all.) Less than a year later, on December 13, 2018, Virgin Galactic launched its SpaceShipTwo rocket to the edge of space, “capping off years of difficult testing to become the first US commercial human flight to reach space since America’s shuttle program ended in 2011,” as the Guardian put it.

The global space economy is enormous—worth $350 billion in 2018—with the vast majority of it in commercial rather than governmental space ventures. Much of that commercial side involves satellites and defense contracts, of course, but it’s also in this new generation of space-exploration-related enterprises. It’s in the nine US companies, including Lockheed Martin Space and Deep Space Systems, that recently won the right to bid on delivering science and technology payloads to the moon for NASA. It’s in the $2.5 billion invested in start-up companies dedicated to putting people and things into space in 2017 alone. And some of it is in the auxiliary businesses that have sprouted up to service the burgeoning space-travel industry.

There are private training facilities such as the National Aerospace Training and Research Center in Southampton, Pennsylvania, which, in 2010, three years after it was founded, became the first facility approved by the FAA to train potential astronauts to pilot commercial space flights; the dedicated spaceports such as the $220 million Spaceport America in New Mexico, which is the first FAA-licensed “purpose-built commercial spaceport in the world” and counts Virgin Galactic as a tenant; and the companies that make scientific equipment to use in zero gravity. (Lest we forget that space flights aren’t just for the rich—they’re also for scientists.) It’s even in space hotels, a highly speculative area currently dominated by Bigelow Aerospace, a privately funded company that bought the patents to NASA’s abandoned TransHab designs for compact, inflatable, space-ready habitats. There’s so much investment in space now that at least one student researcher at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University is concerned that the US is headed toward a potential space bubble.

Like the investment researchers at Morgan Stanley, Greg Autry, an assistant professor of clinical entrepreneurship with a focus on space industries at USC’s Marshall School of Business, believes that 2019 might be space tourism’s year. He sees the first suborbital flights happening within the next year, adding, “I think [space tourism is] real, I think it will occur, and it will be more successful than most people would imagine.” It also may not look the way we think it will: suborbital rockets are “the equivalent of an intercontinental ballistic missile,” Autry explains, capable of reaching anywhere on earth in under an hour. So before we’re holidaying in space hotels based on discarded NASA designs, it’s possible that we’ll be boarding suborbital crafts for “point-to-point travel”—flying from, say, Los Angeles to Abu Dhabi in less time than it takes to commute from New Jersey to Manhattan.

The American appetite for space tourism isn’t exactly robust; a Pew Research survey from 2018 found that 58 percent of Americans wouldn’t want to go to space, citing expense and general fear. But that doesn’t matter. Enough people with enough money do want to go, and this is a high tide that could raise all boats. “It might just seem like entertainment for trust-fund kids, but it’s important to realize that wealthy people tend to drive whatever the new technology is,” Autry says. “When the first CD player came out, it cost $800. Those people have to be there to pay for that technological development that benefits everyone else.”

Obtaining the US trademark rights to “Space Miles” proved more difficult than Phil Clarkson originally thought. Clarkson had applied to the US Patent and Trademark Office in the hopes of securing the phrase within the United States, but American officials kept coming back to him with quibbles: you can’t trademark the word “space,” they said—you have to differentiate between “kitchen space” or “commercial space” and “living space.” “It was space, and I wasn’t American, and they didn’t like it at all,” explains Clarkson, who finally referred Patent and Trademark administrators to the 1998 Commercial Space Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton to encourage development of the commercial space industry in the private sector, part of that surge of private industry into an area previously occupied by government. “Did [Clinton] mean ‘kitchen space’ or ‘living space’?” Clarkson says he asked the administrators. The trademark was granted in 2002.

There’s so much investment in space now that at least one researcher is concerned that the US is headed toward a potential space bubble.

By the time they’d gotten the trademarks sorted in countries that the Space Miles partners felt would become major space-tourism players in the near future—including India, Singapore, and China—it was 2004. Clarkson and two friends, his ship-brokering colleagues, had spent close to £200,000 in legal, registration, and translation fees, Clarkson says, money they’d scraped together between them over the years. (Clarkson did the research and the chasing of lawyers and patent offices, and his friends helped out financially for a share of the eventual payoff.) All Space Miles’ founders needed to do, it seemed, was sit back and wait.

They’re still waiting. “We see no point in launching until somebody or other has managed to announce real flights for real people,” explains Simon Butcher, who became one of three directors of the company in 2007. He is also a shareholder, as well as Space Miles’ resident web designer. “We’ve been promised that that is coming since, oh, 2008. It’s been real soon now. We’re jaded enough that we’re thinking, Let’s just wait until tickets are there and available.

It wasn’t the promise of space tourism that got Butcher on board, exactly—it was the name. Butcher met Clarkson in that Honiton pub in 2002. “He asked what I do, and I said I design websites. And he said, ‘Oh, you’d be interested in this, I’ve got Space Miles,’” says Butcher. “I thought, ‘So what? That whole dot-com thing has been and gone.’ He said, ‘No, no, no, not the domain name—the trademark.’” Butcher was intrigued. Curious, he looked up Clarkson’s rudimentary website. “I thought, That’s gruesome—they need something better than that.

A few months later—after a weekend at home with the flu, bored—he’d built them one. “I sort of got sucked in and kept on doing things for [Clarkson] on the Space Miles project, just because I thought it was a great project,” he explains, adding that he didn’t take any payment for his work. Within five years, Butcher’s belief in the venture was substantial enough that he decided to become a shareholder, putting in money to, among other things, register the company on the Isle of Man.

Space Miles Holdings Ltd. has been waiting—but not idly. Around the time the company registered on the Isle of Man—chosen, Butcher says, in part because the self-governed Crown dependency in the Irish Sea was making a bid to become “space island,” to attract the aerospace industry—they came up with a way to make Space Miles exist more than only in name.

They called it “The Space Shuffle.” For a nominal fee, contestants will answer three fairly easy questions about space tourism; correct answers will get contestants entered into a prize drawing, the grand prize being a suborbital space flight paid for by Space Miles, with money put in by the company’s shareholders (of which there are now six, including Butcher, his partner, and another friend who also put in money in exchange for ownership). Space Miles then takes the money raised through the competition’s entry fees and feeds it into setting up its loyalty scheme.

Butcher and his fellow directors worked to set up the competition on the Isle of Man, priced out servers for the cost of running the competition online, figured out what they’d need to market it properly, and settled on $250,000. In 2016, Butcher and his partner, Clair, remortgaged their home in Kensal Rise, London, at a higher rate to finance the competition. This was after they had originally decided to just sell their house to raise the money. In fact, they’d put the house on the market three weeks before the Brexit referendum, but decided to pull it off again after the “Leave” decision threw the country into turmoil.

But the company still—still—can’t make any moves before the first suborbital flights actually happen; without the flights, they have no actual prize to offer. “As soon as we start and have people entering, we will have profit and it will not be too long after that we will be in negotiations with somebody for launching the Space Miles credit card and merchant-based rewards program,” claims Butcher. “Or somebody coming along and giving us a nice big check.” They’d much prefer the latter.

A concept like Space Miles should work, says USC’s Greg Autry: “It makes total sense to me.” But there are a few things that need to happen before it does. The first, as Butcher points out, is a company actually launching a suborbital rocket with a load of paying customers on board; that, Autry says, is likely soon, within the next year to 18 months. After that, the price of suborbital space flights will need to drop significantly—at the moment, the $250,000 cost on Virgin makes them out of reach to most except the ultrarich, who probably aren’t interested in loyalty schemes anyway.

A quarter of a million dollars is a big number. But there are a lot of big numbers in the new space industry, just like there are a lot of very, very rich people propelling it along. Clarkson and his fellow shareholders are not rich, of course; they’ve all kept their day jobs, making them an anomaly in an industry utterly dominated by people with extreme wealth, folks with access to huge amounts of money that rival a small country’s entire GDP.

There is no doubt that Space Miles is a concept before its time. “We did start it too early,” acknowledges Butcher, who has continued to work as a web designer while trying to make Space Miles happen. But, he adds, “I have a very Taoist view of everything: if it’s not happening this minute, it’s because it’s not the right time for it to happen. When the right time comes, it will happen. I think overnight success tends to take about 15 years.”

Most of the people who are involved in the space-tourism industry are in it because they also want to go to space; they crave the quasi-mystical, life-changing experience of looking down on the glowing Earth from the deep dome of black. Clarkson himself says he would go “like a shot,” given the chance. “All little boys, we’re all little Buzz Aldrins, many girls and women as well,” he says. But Clarkson knows that even if he does make his millions—or billions—out of Space Miles, he won’t be able to go. At 66, he has a serious heart condition, one that keeps him from traveling out of Devon, much less out of Earth’s atmosphere. “I’m waiting to be made bionic,” he explains. The clock is ticking.

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