"Affordable commercial space travel, closer than you think"

From Inat Hajduk <inathajduk@xxxxxxxxx>
Date Mon, 9 Jan 2006 00:22:36 -0800 (PST)

Seems like a good article, enjoy...


By ALLISON CONNOLLY, The Virginian-Pilot
© January 9, 2006
Last updated: 1:04 AM

How much would you pay for a chance to look down at
Earth from the edge of space?

Technology is advancing so quickly that a ?suborbital
hop,? more than 62 miles above Earth, may not only
become possible for the average person ? it may soon
be affordable.

Within the next two years, billionaire businessman
Richard Branson promises to begin suborbital flights
from a planned launch pad in New Mexico. If
successful, Branson would be the first entrepreneur to
own both an earthly airline, Virgin Atlantic, and a
space-bound one, Virgin Galactic, in which he has
invested $25 million . Branson has reportedly already
sold tickets for future space trips ? for $200,000
each ? despite the fact he does not yet have a
spaceship to market.

The lure is to see what only highly trained astronauts
have seen: the curvature of Earth and the black sky of

Branson?s not the only one with his eye on space
travel. Fellow business moguls Jeff Bezos of
Amazon.com and Paul Allen of Microsoft Corp. have
committed millions of dollars to their own space

?If people are willing to spend the money and put
their egos in the closet, it?s entirely possible,?
said James Van Laak, director of the systems
management office at NASA Langley Research Center in
Hampton and a former manager of the international
space station.

The commercial space race kicked off last year when a
small company based in the Mojave Desert successfully
flew the first privately built aircraft ? SpaceShipOne
?70 miles above Earth to the edge of space twice in
less than a week. The company, Scaled Composites LLC,
collected the $10 million Ansari X Prize and captured
the imaginations of those who dream of space travel.
The company is building SpaceShipTwo and has an
agreement with Branson?s company to design a
commercial space vehicle for as many as nine

?No one thinks suborbital is the endpoint by any
means,? said Doug Shane, vice president of business
development and director of flight operations at
Scaled Composites. He visited Langley last week to
talk about the X Prize flights. ?They see it as a
steppingstone to other planets.?

And, as with the space race of the late 1950s and
early 1960s, the Russians also are in the running.

American businessman Dennis Tito was the first
official space tourist in 2001, with a Russian ticket.
He paid the Russian government $20 million to catch a
ride with a soyuz space capsule and spend a week at
the international space station. Arlington -based
Space Adventures Ltd., which matched Tito up with the
cosmonauts, hopes to offer suborbital flights in two
years for $102,000. If 2008 is not soon enough, the
company offers a near-suborbital glimpse of Earth from
80,000 feet aboard a MiG-25 fighter jet for $23,695.

People are skeptical about how space travel can be
made both safe and affordable, much as they were when
the commercial airliner was introduced. Shane said the
two are intertwined: The safer it is, the less
expensive it will be.

Reliability will be the burgeoning industry?s biggest
challenge, said Bruce Holmes, director of strategic
partnership planning and management at Langley. An
accident could steer the entire industry off course.

?In some respects, we all need to be aware and, to the
extent possible, comfortable with the fact that this
industry has to go through the same growth cycle,? he

Scaled Composites made it look deceptively easy,
Holmes said.

It took the company 3½ years to build SpaceShipOne.
There are no hydraulics anywhere on the spacecraft:
The landing gear was deployed by springs, and all the
controls were neumatic.

Although the flights were considered successful, the
pilots encountered rolling problems that need to be
controlled. Ye t the fact that SpaceShipOne took off
and landed like an airplane makes it a particularly
attractive model for commercial flight, Holmes said.
It could use any airport in the country, he said.

To appeal to consumers, engineers must make the ride
smoother. A video of the winning X Prize flight shows
pilot Brian Binnie shaking wildly as the spacecraft
passed through Earth?s atmosphere. Binnie?s body
endured forces of nearly six Gs , or six times the
force of Earth?s gravity, though only for a matter of
seconds. Both flights encountered rolling and pitching
that was hard to control.

Although they can?t change the laws of physics,
engineers should be able to make the ride smoother,
said Langley?s Van Laak, with the risk being about the
same as that of skydiving.

Congress has decided not to regulate such flights
until the industry matures. For the X Prize flights,
Scaled Composites received a commercial launch
license, the same one a defense contractor needs to
launch a rocket.

NASA has not studied commercial space travel because
Congress, which decides the agency?s budget, has not
asked it to do so, Holmes said. Private efforts by
Branson and Scaled Composites, however, fit well
within President Bush?s vision for NASA to send humans
back to the moon and ultimately to Mars, Holmes said.

?It seems to us these days that there must be a viable
commercial market to get production numbers up and
costs down,? he said.

Reach Allison Connolly at (757) 446-2318 or

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