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Commercial Space

Space - the final frontier. No longer just the science fiction voyages of the Starship Enterprise but a real adventure opening up for tourism.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo

Dennis Tito, a spritely 72-year-old American, wants to send people to the planet Mars. The multi-millionaire has set up the Inspiration Mars Foundation and plans to send a couple on a 501-day round trip to the red planet in 2018.

Space is something Tito knows well. He was the first space tourist, paying Russia a reported $20 million (€15.4 million) for a ticket to the International Space Station in 2001. He and others, including the entrepreneur Richard Branson, are leading efforts to commercialise space travel.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic has penciled in the first commercial space flights for the start of 2014. But it is not the only outfit wanting to offer trips to outer space, as Netherland-based Space Expedition Corporation (SXC) also plans to fly customers from next year. Aircraft manufacturer Boeing is currently testing a commercial replacement for Nasa’s space shuttle design pioneered in the late 1960s. Elsewhere, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, space tourists are already paying a reported $35 million to travel to the International Space Station on a Russian Soyuz-TMA spacecraft.

There may be delays to the launch of the first commercial space airline – the challenge of matching space tourists’ dreams of playing Captain Kirk with the actual complexities of space travel and financial reality is immense. The first Virgin Galactic flights, announced in 2007, are already six years behind schedule.

Yet there is evidence that behind the promotional hype, the company’s rocket is indeed edging closer to lift off. Virgin Galactic made its first powered test flight over the Mojave Desert in California in April this year. It managed to get its rocket-propelled spacecraft SpaceShipTwo up to 16,764 metres at Mach 1.2 – breaking the sound barrier – before returning to earth after a 10-minute flight. It was released at an altitude of 14,630 metres by a separate mother ship.

It is a promising start, although a modest achievement compared to the 100 kilometres above earth, at speeds of up to 4,828 kilometres per hour, the rocket ultimately hopes to achieve.

“The first time you go supersonic with a new vehicle is a big test. It took eight and a half years of hard work to get this far but we are now on course for full space test flights by the end of 2013 – and commercial flights soon after,” says Virgin Galactic commercial director Stephen Attenborough.

It is estimated that £500 million (€590 million) has been invested in Branson’s venture to date, with Abu Dhabi investment fund Aabar Investments stumping up £180 million for a 32% stake in the project – enticed by the chance for the city to become a space hub.

At least 580 future astronauts have already signed up for the two-and-a-half hour trips, handing over more than $58 million in deposits for the $250,000 flights. Until this year tickets were sold at a modest $200,000 each.

The New Mexico state government has also committed £134 million for a 3,048-metre runway and Spaceport America hangar in a remote desert spot, which Virgin Galactic is believed to pay £54,000 a month rent to use. As with the development of the spacecraft, there were delays in the construction due to legal wrangling, building regulation problems and contract disputes – only finally resolved with an agreement signed this April. Even now, the commercial space flight service still cannot go ahead until a license is secured from the Federal Aviation Administration following further testing.

“Once operational we may fly up to 500 people in the first year to 18 months so if you make a reservation today there’s a good chance of flying in the first two years of commercial operation,” says Attenborough. “Our aspiration is to fly every day with multiple vehicles but start with one.”

SpaceShipTwo – successor to a SpaceShipOne prototype in 2004 – was formally unveiled in 2009 as the VSS Enterprise, sharing the name of the science-fiction starship in the TV series Star Trek. The spaceship will carry six passengers and be manned by two pilots. Everyone will get a window seat as well as a porthole above the head to ensure a great view.

“You won’t need specialised training but must still go on a three-day programme for familiarisation and emergency procedures. This includes getting prepared for the weightless experience of Zero-G and the high g-forces felt from the rocket power,” adds Attenborough.

Getting a ticket with Virgin Galactic is easy if you have the money – the company is desperately keen to sign up potential customers to make the venture viable. Customers can book online or through one of its ‘accredited space agents’ – existing travel agents listed on its website. Celebrities signed up include actors Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Tom Hanks and Ashton Kutcher. Professor Stephen Hawking also wants to go. Out of a study of 81 potential customers – aged 22 to 88 – a total of 93% passed the health check criteria for booking a seat on the flight.

Offering a more low-key approach to space travel is Dutch Space Expedition Corporation (SXC). It has the backing of the California-based XCOR Aerospace firm that is making a Lynx shuttle to provide the flights. The airline carrier KLM also supports the new project.

Eva Van Pelt, public relations manager at the SXC headquarters in Amsterdam, says: “The Lynx space shuttle takes off like a commercial airliner and only has room for a pilot and single passenger. You get an incredible view through a glass canopy.”

Initial SXC flights will cost $95,000 and take a single traveller in a Lynx space plane up 60 kilometres above the earth where weightlessness will be experienced for up to four minutes. The flights will last about 45 minutes. There will later be a $100,000 option where passengers go up 100 kilometres – the same as Virgin Galactic – to experience weightlessness for six minutes in an hour-long trip.

Nasa considers people to be astronauts once they have travelled higher than 80 kilometres. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale has established a boundary between earth and outer space known as the Karman line – which is at an altitude of 100 kilometres. At this point the earth’s curvature and the deep black of space are clearly seen. So far about 500 humans have been up in space – reaching an altitude of 100 kilometres or more. Earth’s atmosphere officially ends at 800 kilometres.

“As we are using a reusable rocket system we will offer as many as four flights a day. There will also be the advantage of being able to use a variety of different airstrips,” says Van Pelt.

At present the Lynx is expected to blast off from spaceports in California’s Mojave Desert as well as Curaçao, an island in the Caribbean just north of Venezuela. It will be up to the space tourists to make their way to the launch sites at their own expense but basic training will be included within the space flight cost. This will involve using a simulator for the journey before the real thing.

XCOR has conducted more than 5,000 rocket launches and 67 flights in preparation but cannot provide a firm starting date for commercial flights – only confirming low altitude flights will start “tentatively by the end of 2013”. Higher altitude flights are scheduled to take off from mid-2014.

Boeing is also looking at space flight but it is still in the development stage and unable to provide firm details of when flights might be offered. It is piloting a test vehicle based on an earlier NASA X-37A project from 2006. The first prototype flew in 2010, followed up with an X-37B unmanned test vehicle in 2011. It is now working on an X-37C variant that might be able to transport up to six astronauts – but with the US Air Force heavily involved, the details are still under wraps. The project is seen as a successor to the space shuttle model that flew its last mission in 2011.

Boeing is also involved in developing a CST-100 commercial space capsule designed to transport crew to the International Space Station.

Blue Origin and Armadillo Aerospace are two Texas-based firms that are also focused on getting humans into space. Other outfits include Stratolaunch, which has the backing of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and Alliant Techsystems’ Liberty. There is also California-based SpaceX. Most of these concepts are still in the prototype stage and might not succeed, but some may provide future opportunities.

In contrast, the Baikonur Cosmodrome already has a great historic record of offering space flights, having been used by the Soviet Union in the Cold War years to launch numerous rockets, including the one that put the first man in space – Yuri Gagarin – in 1961. It is still used as a launch pad for flights to the International Space Station. A Soyuz journey to the space station takes two days. The station orbits earth every 90 minutes at a distance of 370-460 kilometres – offering 16 sunrises and sunsets. It is funded by the space agencies of the US, Canada, Russia, Europe and Japan and has a six-strong crew. 

This may be a flight of fancy but Nasa is already working on making Mars visits a reality – with experts predicting landing in 20 years. Janet Stevens of the US space promotion body Space Foundation says: “It is not a question of if, but when. If tourists want to stay at space hotels or visit Mars then it will happen.” 

Space Flight Options

International Space Station - $35 million

So far seven space tourists have opted to visit the International Space Station as paying passengers – typically for a two-week vacation aboard a Russian Soyuz spaceship. Tickets to share trips with astronauts and cosmonauts are available though the tour operating firm Space Adventures. The first flight for space tourists took place in 2001.

Virgin Galactic - $250,000

The ‘Pioneer’ option enables you to be among the first astronauts – going up 100 kilometres in space – for $250,000. Ticket prices were put up from $200,000 this year. ‘Voyagers’ ticket can be purchased for the second year of flights with a $25,000 deposit. A charter option exists of $1 million for all six of the passenger places. The first flights are planned to take place in early 2014.

Space Expedition Corporation - $95,000

Initial flights will cost $95,000 and will take a single traveller in a Lynx II space plane up 60 kilometres above the earth to experience weightlessness. Another option for $100,000 will go up to 100 kilometres – the same height as Virgin Galactic flights. First flights are planned to take place in early 2014.

Zero Gravity Experience - $5,000

Potential astronauts can already get a taster of what it might feel like in zero gravity through outfits such as the Zero G Corporation, which offers flights in a number of locations in America using specially adapted Boeing 727 planes. Tickets start at $5,000 and include more than a dozen parabolic manoeuvres that allow a sense of weightlessness.

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