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Brave New World? Next Steps Planned for Private Space Travel

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Wed Oct 6, 2004 5:03 pm
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By Leonard David Space.com: MOJAVE, CALIFORNIA — While SpaceShipOne’s wispy contrail from sky to space quickly vanished into the thin desert air here, Monday’s flight at Mojave Spaceport left a solid line in the sand — to create a “new space age” of personal space travel.

“This is the end of the beginning,” said Gregg Maryniak, X Prize Foundation Executive Director, shortly after Brian Binnie had piloted SpaceShipOne to a successful win of the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

For the X Prize Foundation, plans are underway for the start of an annual event called the X Prize Cup.

Think of it as a cross between Champ Grand Prix racing, the America’s Cup, and the Olympics, explained Peter Diamandis, Chairman and Founder of the X Prize Foundation.

The X Prize Cup will be held beginning in 2006. This international “Grand Prix of Space” is to be staged in New Mexico at the Southwest Regional Spaceport near the city of Las Cruces.

X Prize-class spaceships from around the globe will compete for cash prizes and awards in several categories, such as fastest turnaround, maximum altitude reached, total number of passengers flown over the 10 day event; and even the “coolest looking ship”, Diamandis said.

A primary aspiration of the X Prize Cup, Diamandis said, is to begin dissolving the myth that the public will never travel to space in their lifetime.

Fleet of spaceships

Shortly after SpaceShipOne touched down, the chief designer of that vehicle, Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites, made it clear he’s already got his sleeves rolled up.

The ink has barely dried on an agreement announced on September 27 between Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and the Paul Allen company, Mojave Aerospace Ventures, to license the technology to develop the world’s first privately funded fleet of spaceships.

Along with Virgin’s agreement with Mojave Aerospace Ventures, the company has also signed a Letter of Intent with Rutan and Scaled Composites to utilize the technology in building a new spaceship and derivatives thereof, for the purposes of carrying paying passengers on a journey to orbit, returning to Earth as astronauts two hours later.

As a Microsoft co-founder and now billionaire, Allen bankrolled the SpaceShipOne effort, with Rutan and his Scaled Composites team designing and building the vehicle.

“I backed the development of SpaceShipOne because I saw this as a great opportunity to demonstrate that space exploration could someday be within the reach of private citizens,” Paul Allen said in a September 27 press statement.

“Today’s deal with Virgin represents the next stage in the evolution of the SpaceShipOne concept, and will likely be the first of a number of deals that will utilize the technology developed during its creation,” Allen said.

Virgin Galactic

Virgin has formed Virgin Galactic, a new company envisioned by Branson to become the world’s first commercial space tourism operator. Virgin Galactic’s intent is to open for business by the beginning of 2005. Subject to the necessary safety and regulatory approvals the company would begin operating flights from 2007.

Branson, in attendance for SpaceShipOne’s prize-winning flight, said that he is dedicated to carrying commercial passengers on space flights. A fleet of five vessels are to be built, each capable of flying 5 individuals.

Those vehicles would be fabricated here at the Mojave Spaceport, Branson told SPACE.com.

Both Rutan and Branson publicly stated they will be onboard the inaugural flight of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise in three years time.

Innovations for safe space tourism

The licensing deal with Mojave Aerospace Ventures could be worth up to $21.5 million over the next fifteen years depending on the number of spaceships built by Virgin.

According to Virgin Galactic, it expects that around $100 million will be invested in developing the new generation of spaceships and ground infrastructure required to operate a suborbital space tourism experience.

Initially, Virgin Galactic’s passenger spaceliner would fly from Mojave. “If it goes well, we’d love to have one based in Australia, Japan, Europe, and based in South Africa, or Africa somewhere,” Branson stated.

Rutan said that the key thrust for the Paul Allen SpaceShipOne work focused on a set of innovations thought to have enormous benefits for the safety of space tourism.

“My position is that we can’t stop there…many, many more are needed. That’s our job here in Mojave. If you look around, there’s not much else to do here. Innovation is what we do because there’s nothing else to do in Mojave,” he told SPACE.com.

The manned space tourism system for Sir Richard Branson, Rutan said, would be at least a hundred times safer than anything that’s every flown a person into space, and probably a lot more.

“The first space tourism business will be considerably safer than the original airliners that started flying people a long time ago. I’m very confident of that now. We’ve gone a long ways toward our goal…we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Rutan said.

Vision summit

Virgin has been in discussion with Allen and Rutan throughout the year, including a “Vision Summit”, quietly held in Mojave at Rutan’s home as prelude to the June 21st flight of SpaceShipOne.

That gathering helped seal the deal months later for Virgin to license SpaceShipOne’s technology to build the world’s first private spaceships to go into commercial operating service.

Branson’s official launch of Virgin Galactic was staged on September 27 at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London.

At that gathering, Branson called attention to new technologies in software, computers, and materials that are bringing about viable commercial space travel. The fact that mogul Paul Allen was footing the bill for Burt Rutan to build SpaceShipOne, he said, was a clear signal that the day of private spaceships had arrived.

“If Burt says he can build an affordable, reusable spaceship using composite technology that he has pioneered in aviation and utilizing new breakthroughs in rocket propulsion, then you can almost bet your bottom dollar that he will do it. And do it successfully,” Branson explained.

Privileged-class seating

Branson has stated that “those privileged space pioneers who can afford to take our first flights will not only have the most awesome experience of their lives, but by stepping up to the plate first will bring the dream of space travel for many millions closer to reality.”

But to grab “privileged-class” seating onboard the VSS Enterprise also means taking a steep financial climb. It’ll slap your wallet starting at around $190,000 for a suborbital flight — a fee that includes days of training for your flight.

One item Virgin Galactic is quick to point out: To date, the cheapest space tourism experiences in government built and taxpayer-funded spaceships cost over $15 million per seat.

While Virgin Galactic will be run as a business, Branson said, the sole purpose of that concern is to reinvest funds made over the first few years back into making space travel more and more affordable.

“We will also reinvest profits to make Burt’s dreams of orbital flights come true and one day — hopefully in our life times — we would like to see a Virgin hotel in space,” Branson explained.

New astronauts

Within five years, Virgin Galactic wants to create over 3,000 new astronauts from many countries.

“Many of these countries have not had the funds to date to compete with the government funded space programmes of the super powers. Subject to appropriate government approvals, we plan to construct launch pads for commercial space ships in a number of countries over the next few years,” Branson said.

Robert Samuelson, head of corporate development for Virgin Group, based in London, told SPACE.com: “We have a willingness to make a commitment. And we feel we’re in the lead position on that commitment. We have a leading design to be there.”

“Having said that, we will take sufficient time in developing the next ship…to ensure that we’re confident that the safety standard that we’ve set is reached,” Samuelson added.

Samuelson said the biggest risk in the Virgin Galactic project is to get the ship safe enough and to hit a target cost in terms of what it cost to reach space.

“I think if you get those two things right, they’ll be enough people that want to do it. And if you get enough people doing it, you can then, over time, find efficiencies and find ways of making it cheaper and cheaper, just as commercial airlines have managed to do,” Samuelson said.

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