Last year, when the Atlantis space shuttle ended its five million mile homecoming journey and landed on earth, it also ended 30 years of manned space exploration for NASA. Which is heartbreaking if you thought we’d be living on the moon by now. Plus, how are we ever going to colonize Mars? Or enter deep space, find other planets, and see if Ridley Scott’s Prometheus plotline really is true? How could NASA do this to us?!
Well, while NASA waits to resume manned space flights, which could be quite a while, we will enter a new epoch of space travel—one of commercial space flight. Richard Branson is set to launch into the heavens with his children, Holly and Sam, in 2013 aboard a vessel from his Virgin Galactic airline. He announced this yesterday at the Farnborough International Airshow, where it was also divulged that in total 529 celebs and wealthy people have signed up to participate over the coming years, which is more than the 528 who have gone into space since Yuri Gagarin’s first trip in 1961. Each of these space tourists will be paying $200,000 to be fired 62 miles up into space, experience zero gravity, and be back in time for dinner.
The vehicle transporting these voyagers on their sub-orbital journey is the SpaceShipTwo (SS2). This aircraft, which is also kicking off the beginnings of commercial space tourism, is being built in New Mexico and is a joint venture between a company called Scaled Composites and the Virgin Group. Scaled Composites was founded by famed home built airplane designer Burt Rutan and has a history of home-built aviation. In the late 70s and early 80s, Rutan instigated something of a revolution in DIY flight by using composites.
And a similar thing could happen eventually, in the next century or beyond, for space travel, and the beginnings of that could be in commercial spaceflight. Last year I spoke with Elliott Seguin , a project engineer at Scaled, about their base in the Mojave Desert, a few hundreds miles northwest of Spaceport America in New Mexico, the world’s first purpose-built commercial space port, currently under construction. Back in 2004, Scaled Composites won the X Prize for SpaceShipOne, SpaceShipTwo’s predecessor, which used homebuilt technology to put the first manned, private spacecraft into space. And now, the second iteration is due to launch next year.
This new era will not only see those with money to burn being able to fly into the cosmos, but also means that private vessels could be used to carry out research for scientists. Scaled Composites’ WhiteKnightTwo, the aircraft which will launch the SpaceShipTwo into space, will also be used for LauncherOne, a vehicle that will carry small satellites into space at a tenth of the current cost.
WhiteKnightOne: the craft that launched SpaceShipOne into space
And cost, said Seguin, is key. “The problem with space travel is the exorbitant costs, and what I think the commercial side, or our side of the industry can add to it, is come up with creative solutions to solve that cost problem.” It’s also about showing people that it can be done, that’s it’s not just some pie in the sky idea that can only be dreamt of but never realized. “I think the important thing there is that it lets people know that space travel can be routine.” Seguin said, “When we think of space travel we think of the moon landings, the space shuttle, we think of these huge projects with these huge budgets and these huge technical teams.”
With these new commercial space vessels the complications of space flight (sure it’s only sub-orbital, for now…) become a bit more manageable while still keeping manned space travel, for the US, a reality. And it means, with the current economic shitstorm never looking like it’s going to pass, that the near-future of space travel doesn’t have to rely entirely on government funding. As Seguin says, “What something like SpaceShipOne or SpaceShipTwo does is it brings it down to a level where we can manage it. We say, ‘You know, it really is just a pressure vessel, it really is just a rocket motor’—something that is way more complicated than the family car, but it's not undoably complicated. It doesn't have to be the lunar lander on the surface of the moon. It is fundamentally a simple problem and that's what's so exciting about it.”
So start small, by first putting our celebrities in sub-orbit. Then who knows, we could be launching our celebrities to Mars before we know it. Let’s just hope that the private companies behind the spacecraft don’t turn into the Weyland Corporation.