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One small step for space tourism

Published by Robin on Fri Dec 17, 2004 1:24 am
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Dec 16th 2004, The Economist print edition
If plans for a new range of suborbital vehicles get off the drawing board, then holidays in space could get off the ground

In the past year, a lot has changed in the field of human spaceflight. In January, President George Bush brushed aside the fact that America’s entire space-shuttle fleet was grounded when he announced grandiose plans to put people back on the moon, and then to launch a manned mission to Mars. In June, Burt Rutan, an American aeronautical engineer, showed that human spaceflight was no longer the preserve of governments by sending a man to the edge of space in SpaceShipOne, a privately financed vehicle that cost about the same to build as a luxury yacht. That was followed in September by Sir Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur behind the Virgin brand, announcing that he had signed a deal with Mr Rutan to work on plans for a fleet of five suborbital vehicles developed from SpaceShipOne.

Now, in the dying days of the year, America’s Congress has passed a bill that unravels a tangle about who would be responsible for regulating the fledgling industry, and under what terms. The bill also allows passengers to fly on the understanding that this new generation of vehicles may not be as safe as taking a commercial flight between, say, New York and London.

The official line from Virgin Galactica, as Sir Richard’s latest venture is modestly named, is that this coming change in the law makes no practical difference to the firm’s plans, since they do not intend to fly unless they can make their spacecraft as safe as a private jet. But it must surely come as some sort of relief. In any case, Will Whitehorn, director of corporate affairs at Virgin’s headquarters in London, and soon to become the president of Virgin Galactica, says that work is under way on a mock-up of the interior of a new spacecraft that will hold five passengers. Virgin has already committed $20m towards licensing the SpaceShipOne technology from Mr Rutan and his financial backer Paul Allen, a software billionaire.

Up, up and away

If all goes well, Virgin will spend up to $100m on the project. The first milestone will be the signing of the construction contract in the early part of next year, after which work will begin on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo. The first in the series of ships will probably be called VSS Enterprise, the second VSS Voyager. In other words, they will be named after vessels from “Star Trek”. There will also be a new “mother” aircraft to take them to high altitude prior to their launch into space. Mr Whitehorn says that VSS Enterprise should be ready for testing some time during 2007. The plan, he says, is to have six months of intensive testing, but not more.

For close to $200,000, customers will get a three-day experience that will include a lot of medical checks. During this time there will also be some “dietary work”, as Mr Whitehorn coyly describes it. This would ensure that people could get into space without embarrassing themselves by throwing up because their stomachs were too full. And while flat beds may be a luxury on Virgin’s transatlantic flights, they will be essential for journeys into space. The flat foam seats will be moulded to individual passengers. This is so that when they are rocketing into the skies they will barely notice a G-force that might cause them to pass out if they were sitting upright, because their blood would be forced from their heads into their bodies.

The only disappointment is that it will not be possible for passengers to bounce around the cabin in zero gravity. They will be attached to their seats with rubber bungees that will allow them to float about a bit, but will reel them in for descent after four or five minutes of weightlessness.

Sceptics might scoff that Virgin Galactica is just another of Sir Richard’s many publicity stunts. But it looks serious, and there is already some competition. Blue Origin, a company based in Seattle, and backed by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, a big internet retailer, appears to be planning to offer rival suborbital flights. Such is the secrecy around the project that, as one industry insider put it, “everyone I know who knows anything about it isn’t allowed to talk about it. And please, please don’t quote me on that.”

Rumours are that Blue Origin’s vehicle will be able to carry seven people. Unlike Virgin’s, it will leave the ground under its own steam—or, rather, its own plume of exhaust—and will also land that way, rather than deploying parachutes or gliding on to a runway. And it will be liquid fuelled, like the manned launchers used by the Russian, American and Chinese space agencies, but unlike Mr Rutan’s propulsion system, which consists of rubber mixed with laughing gas.

Will anyone want to go? All the studies so far suggest there is indeed enough interest. About 13,000 people from around the world have already registered to pay a deposit with Virgin. Some want to pay the entire amount up-front, in order to guarantee one of the first flights. And if Virgin has got its sums right, it need fill only 5,000 seats over the first five years to turn a profit.

The wild, black yonder

Both the Virgin and the Blue Origin vehicles, though, are designed merely to nibble at the edge of space. They will climb a little beyond the 100km altitude marker that geophysicists regard as the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere, but they will not go into orbit. The power required to do that is still the preserve of governments. But not, perhaps, for much longer. In September, news emerged that Robert Bigelow, who runs Bigelow Aerospace, a firm based in Los Angeles, was going to back a $50m prize modelled on the $10m Ansari X prize that led to the creation of SpaceShipOne. This prize is for a manned vehicle that is able to reach an altitude of 400km and complete two orbits of the Earth. It must then repeat this feat within 60 days. And it must do it by the end of 2010. Whether $50m is a big enough incentive is doubtful. Even Mr Rutan, who knows a thing or two about cheap and cheerful spaceflight, thinks it would cost around $400m-500m, and 5-7 years, to get a new craft into orbit. He cannot try though, as he is signed up with Virgin for the next two years. So who else would be interested?

Mike Gold, Bigelow Aerospace’s lawyer, says that, in addition to the prize, there will be commercial rewards for the company that does it. One of them will be the chance to supply Bigelow “inflatable space habitats”, which are currently being developed as cheap, instant space stations. He suggests that Elon Musk, a co-founder of PayPal, an online payments firm, and also the founder of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of El Segundo, California, would be a contender. SpaceX is working on rockets designed to launch non-human payloads into space. But everyone, including Mr Musk, agrees that winning the new prize will be a tall order.

Nevertheless, with private companies making inroads into parts of space that were previously the remit of governments, it has to be wondered where all this leaves NASA, America’s space agency, and its moribund, earthbound shuttle. The agency did well in the recent budget, and was awarded $16.2 billion, an increase of 5%, in order to further Mr Bush’s vision. But whether that vision will outlast his presidency remains to be seen. This week Sean O’Keefe, who has been NASA’s boss since December 2001, announced that he is to move on as soon as a replacement is found. Après lui, le déluge?

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