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Suborbital spaceflight: tourism vs. barnstorming

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Mon Aug 9, 2004 5:50 am
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chabot imageby Jeff Foust: The events of the last several months have given rise to considerable optimism about the prospects of suborbital space tourism. The flights of SpaceShipOne, most notably its June 21 flight to 100 kilometers, have provided an existence proof that suborbital vehicles designed to carry passengers can be developed commercially. In the last two weeks a race has emerged for the $10-million Ansari X Prize between SpaceShipOne, by Scaled Composites, and the upstart da Vinci Project and its Wild Fire vehicle. It’s possible that, if goes well, there could be three or more commercial suborbital flights within a week at the end of September and early October as these two teams make their final push for the prize. In the meantime, a number of other X Prize teams, and companies not competing for the prize, continue to make progress on their vehicles.

All this progress would suggest that the dawn of the suborbital space tourism era is nearly upon us. Some have even predicted that the first commercial suborbital space tourist may fly before the end of the year. Yet, it’s notable that a number of players, including some of the leading prize competitors, are looking beyond the X Prize-class of small suborbital vehicles at a new generation of larger ones, capable of carrying seven or more passengers, that, they believe, will be required for suborbital space tourism to become a commercial success.

Rutan’s vision of space tourism
At the forefront in this push for larger vehicles is Burt Rutan himself. Speaking at press conferences in Mojave just before and after SpaceShipOne’s historic June flight, Rutan saw the vehicle as only a stepping stone towards larger vehicles. Much of that had to do with the inherent differences between orbital and suborbital flight.

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Read Also X-15 and today’s spaceplanes written by Sam Dinkin.

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