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Space Race 2: A new AERA in space:

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Wed Mar 9, 2005 2:23 pm
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chabot imageBy IRENE MONA KLOTZ CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.,, March 8 : It may seem a stretch of the imagination to fly a passenger-carrying sub-orbital spaceship in less than 22 months considering, at the moment, the craft exists only in blueprints.

True, developers of the seven-seat vehicle called Altairis have run extensive computer simulations of design and flight, according to Lewis Reynolds, president and chief operating officer of AERO Corp.in West Palm Beach, Fla.Still, it hardly helped the firm’s credibility that the prestigious Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City backed out of an agreement to rent a room to AERO for its “Altairis Adventure Rollout,” which had been slated for the end of the month.

Instead, the company came out with a news release Monday announcing its intention to locate flight operations at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.Reynolds, a recent addition to the space community with a background in investment and financial management, said in an interview with UPI’s Space Race 2 that flying from the cape not only will give AERA access to pre-existing launch facilities and established support services, but also should help buff up the firm’s professional persona by associating with the U.S. Air Force and agreeing to a certain level of government insight and program oversight.”The added oversight of the Air Force will instill a feeling that these vehicles are safe,” Reynolds said.

Safety — and affordability — are the keys to what dozens of upstart space tourism businesses are betting will become a massive market in the coming years.”If we can get the safety to a point that’s equivalent essentially to what commercial aviation is today — and if we can get the prices that are affordable to most people that will allow them to experience the flight — then I think there will be tremendous demand for it,” Reynolds said.”As time passes, as you move into orbital flight,” he added.”It will be destinations, but this is where the market has to start — it has to start (with) sub-orbital flight.”

AERO’s overall goal is to become the Boeing of spaceflight, building the spaceships that other firms will buy and operate.Altairis is a liquid-fueled booster that is launched vertically like the space shuttle.Its five-foot-diameter passenger capsule separates from the launcher, peaks at an altitude of about 72 miles (110 kilometers), then descends via guided parafoil to a horizontal touchdown on inflatable airbags.All parts of the vehicle are recovered and reusable, Reynolds said.

The spaceship can carry six passengers and one mission commander.No pilots need apply, however, because the vehicles are fully computerized.The mission commander essentially is a flight attendant, tasked to oversee passenger safety and comfort.”The safest way to fly is to completely eliminate the possibility of human error,” Reynolds said.”Our system has several layers of redundancy.Several computers could fail and the vehicle could still land safely.I think that’s better than having the best pilot that ever lived flying our spacecraft.”

Initially, AERO plans to launch once a month, he said, adding that the vehicles are designed to be serviced and reflown in a day.Reynolds said his company plans to produce five spaceships by the time the first passenger flight lifts off before the end of 2006, and will produce additional vehicles at a rate of one every two months.AERO has begun negotiations for a manufacturing facility and incentives package, but Reynolds declined to comment on the location of the plant until the deal is done.For now, Florida is the firm’s only planned launch and landing site.

Aside from big ideas, AERO also has money.The firm is financed through a venture capital fund on the West Coast, which Reynolds declined to name.He did say the program as a whole costs more than the reported $20 million that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen paid to develop the world’s first private space vehicle, SpaceShipOne, which flew to sub-orbital altitudes with a single pilot aboard three times last year.The per-vehicle cost for an Altairis — a name derived from Altair, the brightest star in the constellation Aquila — is significantly less than Allen’s craft, which was built by Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif.,, under the direction of Burt Rutan, whose fanciful winged creations have set dozens of aviation records, including GlobalFlyer, which recently circumnavigated the globe without refueling.

A commercial version of SpaceShipOne is under development by Scaled for its new partner, Richard Branson, head of Virgin Group in London.

The idea of competing with Virgin’s planned sub-orbital flight service is no problem for Reynolds.Without SpaceShipOne, AERO would not even exist.

Before SpaceShipOne’s flight, “there wasn’t an institutional appetite to invest capital in those types of ventures,” Reynolds said.”Burt Rutan proved that it is possible for a private company to get to space (and he) showed the world that it was possible for a small company, on a relatively small budget, to successfully do that.

” With a license to use SpaceShipOne technology, and with Branson’s deep pockets to fund development, Reynolds is sure Virgin Galactic will be among the firms flying people to space.He said there will be plenty of business for everyone.Some tourists will prefer the gentler airplane-based takeoff of Rutan’s vehicle, while others will want to start their flight with a roaring blastoff from Earth.

“Just as with any market, all consumers will not want the same thing,” Reynolds said.

“I think there’s room for multiple competitors in the space market — in fact, quite a few multiple competitions, just as there are many airlines today,” he said.”As the (space tourism) market grows and the prices become depressed, neither AERO nor Virgin Galactic will, I believe, be able to, by itself, meet all the demand that will be out there amongst the public.”

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