While Jeff Bezos’ space travel company Blue Origin – with two turtles on its coat of arms – unveiled new rockets last week, a Chinese company in Shenzhen is preparing to launch an actual turtle into near-space possibly as early as this month.
The reptile astronaut of Shenzhen-based Kuang-Chi Science, who is called Taigong Gui, or “Space Turtle”, is currently awaiting permission to board the Traveller II Beta that is expected to be launched this month from a remote location in Inner Mongolia (內蒙古).
While the Amazon.com founder likes turtles in his company’s insignia because “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”, Hong Kong-listed Kuang-Chi Science said it chose a turtle because it has stable vital signs and symbolises longevity and luck.
And Kuang-Chi founder and chairman Liu Ruopeng will need plenty of luck in the space-tourism race as competition is mounting globally from companies such as Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Liu is himself a “sea turtle”, or haigui, as Chinese students and professionals who have lived, worked and gained expertise overseas are called.
Kuang-Chi, a subsidiary of the Kuang Chi Science Group, is aiming to use this second trial of the Traveller craft as a springboard to manned tests next year, in direct competition with the likes of American company World View, which has been testing a similar balloon-lifted, six-passenger craft in the deserts of Arizona.
The plan is eventually to send commercial passengers into sub-orbital space. That’s high enough to get some zero gravity and good views without the need for cumbersome spacesuits, though low enough to bring the ship back to earth without going into full orbit mode.
And doing so – the companies hope – will be relatively affordable. During a recent visit to Kuang-Chi’s Apollo Base, an hour’s drive north from the centre of Shenzhen in the hills of the Longgang district, a company representative said tickets would likely go for around 700,000 yuan (HK$813,000).
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Kuang-Chi’s chief engineer for the Traveller programme, Zhou Fei, told This Week in Asia it was “too early to specify the price of a passenger ticket”, but that even so, “as we get closer to the time when Traveller is ready for near-space tourists, the initial pricing of a passenger ticket will be much lower than the going rate for space tourism.”
The global race to get tourists into space and near-space at relatively low costs is engaging some of the world’s top companies. Apart from SpaceX and Blue Origin, there’s also Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
Affordability, though, isn’t the only concern for any of these companies. Carving out room to launch test flights and later passenger flights amid restrictive regulatory environments – always a headache for airlines operating in China because of strict military control of most airspace – is another.
Yet the fastest off the launch pad is not always the winner in the long game. Like turtles, slow can also mean steady. And Kuang-Chi has been taking its time. Originally suggesting it would test the Traveller II in Xinjiang ( 新疆 ) or Inner Mongolia in mid-summer, the company later said it was awaiting approval from the authorities and hoping to launch in September or before winter sets in.
“To make everyone able to go into near space is one of our dreams,” the Xian (西安)-born, Shenzhen-raised Liu Ruopeng said at his spartan office on the second floor of the company’s offices north of Shenzhen University. “It is part of our dream to make it free for everyone.”
There are many challenges to turn his space dream into reality, said Liu, who got a PhD from Duke University, particularly related to the craft that will be used. His company has tested the craft at a lab in Dongguan, near Shenzhen, to simulate the impact of space on the craft.
“To go to a place like that [near space] is one of the challenging points,” Liu said. “How to protect humans or generate a human environment. Outside, it is minus 60 degrees, there is a lot of radiation from the sun, a lot of pressure, so we have to simulate the pressure and radiation.”
Liu is often called the Chinese version of Elon Musk, a comparison he laughs off: “No two people are identical. To change the world, to make it better, to push innovation to the edge, I think in terms of this concept, people like Elon, Steve [Jobs] and [Google co-founder] Larry Page are all heroes in human history, pushing forward great things.”
While Liu says initial venture funding came from his mother – about US$50,000 – three private investors chipped in with about US$4.5 million, while Shenzhen and Guangdong each provided 40 million yuan to Kuang-Chi and Guangdong provided a further 10 million yuan for a satellite technology project.
As part of an effort to develop key strategic industries – such as aerospace technology, high precision machinery, advanced biomaterials and new-energy vehicles – that will be the backbone of the economy for the next several decades, China’s central and local governments have stepped up funding innovation in those industries, with Shenzhen one of the primary centres of the drive.
Besides space tourism, Kuang-Chi has been investing in projects that fit into the strategic industry portfolio like The Cloud, a surveillance blimp that could be used to monitor marathons, maritime traffic, weather, pollution, traffic congestion, or for collecting big data.
Other initiatives include SolarShip, a solar-powered airship that could carry cargo to remote locations. The company has also bought a controlling stake in Australia-listed Martin Jetpacks. Visitors to Kuang-Chi headquarters in Shenzhen can try out a jerky jetpack flight simulator in an exhibition hall.
Most recently, Kuang-Chi Group announced it was investing US$1.5 billion in various projects, including one called Future Valley that will showcase future technologies. It has also set up a US$300 million technology incubator in Israel.
With assistance from Su Dongxia