October 30, 2006

Article at The Australian

MAGAZINE | Prepare for take-off 


Artist's impression of a sub-orbital spaceplane as it carries passengers on a three-hour flight from Sydney to London

Move over space heroes, here come the paying passengers. WILSON da SILVA reports.

ONE DAY, you will board a flight from Sydney to London, and the trip will last just three hours. It will take off from a runway like a regular plane, rise above the clouds, roar into sub-orbital space and, a few hours later, begin descending to land on a runway at Heathrow.

It’s an exciting prospect, not just because it would avoid today’s uncomfortable, 24-hour haul, but because it would also give you a taste of space. To do the trip in so little time means travelling at a speed that is only attainable in the cold vacuum of space. And yet, such trips will only be the beginning: once sub-orbital travel becomes commonplace, hotels in zero gravity and trips to the Moon will come. And a lot faster than many people think.

The next 20 years will likely see a boom in the development of the high frontier of space. And like the flowering of progress that gave birth to the airline industry in the 1920s, the age of commercial space travel will be created by the private sector. 

The first baby steps are under way. In 2004, three manned spaceflights were made from the Mojave Desert of California by a small aircraft company, Scaled Composites, using a radical new tilt-wing design that allowed the craft to take off like a plane, rocket into space, and land on a runway. Known as SpaceShipOne and capable of carrying three passengers, it became the first non-government spacecraft in history, and is now hanging in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum next to the Wright brothers’ Flyer I and the US Air Force’s X-1, the first plane to break the sound barrier.

SpaceShipOne, now hanging in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum next to the U.S. Air Force’s orange X-1

That’s because its achievement is equally stupendous. Until that day in June 2004, there were only two ways of returning from space: use heavy titanium heat shields to keep a capsule from burning up on re-entry, or use lightweight ceramic tiles like those on the space shuttle. But Burt Rutan, the founder of Scaled Composites and designer of SpaceShipOne, did something the multi-billion-dollar space agencies of the US, Russia and China had not in nearly 50 years of the space race: find a cheap and completely aerodynamic solution to re-entry. And he did it using a plastic spaceplane: carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic, a kind of souped-up surfboard fibreglass.

British billionaire Richard Branson has bought the rights to Rutan’s technology, establishing Virgin Galactic, a commercial spaceliner service that can make you an astronaut for $US200,000 ($256,000). More than 100 people have paid in advance to secure a ticket when flights begin in 2008, among them five Australians.

The craft used will be based on SpaceShipOne but much bigger, capable of carrying six passengers and two pilots. It will be lifted into the air by a mothercraft carrying the spaceplane strapped underneath. Once at the right altitude - around 17km - the spaceplane will detach, the onboard rocket engine will fire and 90 seconds later the spaceplane will be in zero gravity about 120km above the Earth. Wearing no spacesuits, passengers will drift around the cabin weightless, seeing the curvature of the Earth outside their windows and doing something only 451 people in all of human history have ever done. After 14 minutes, they will begin re-entry, experiencing up to five times normal gravity before landing like a plane on a runway.

Virgin Galactic isn’t the only player, although it is the only one with a proven spacecraft. Rocketplane Kistler, of Oklahoma City, is building a spaceplane that will offer sub-orbital flights in a converted Learjet, giving passengers four minutes of weightlessness; it is also due to begin flights in 2008. And the company recently won a $US200 million contract from NASA to develop a prototype cargo resupply vehicle for the International Space Station by 2010.

Charles Lindbergh with the Spirit of St Louis

Then there’s Blue Origin of Seattle, founded by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos. It is developing a sub-orbital vehicle that can take off and land vertically and carry three passengers into space. Bezos is secretive about developments, but has said that unmanned test flights are expected later this year.

Another internet entrepreneur to throw his space helmet into the ring is Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal online billing system, who has sunk $US100 million into his company, SpaceX. Based in California and with a launch site in the Marshall Islands, SpaceX has developed a new class of expendable rockets and has already sold 11 commercial cargo launches to various clients. But Musk is also planning to develop passenger spacecraft and has entered America’s Space Prize, which is offering $US50 million to the first US company to put five people into Earth-orbit twice within 60 days.

Such prizes have a history of spurring innovation. In 1913, Britain’s Daily Mail offered (pound stg.) 10,000 to anyone who could fly the Atlantic non-stop. British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown finally achieved this in June 1919. It took another seven years for someone to claim the $US25,000 Orteig Prize, offered to the first person who could fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic. Charles Lindbergh took it when he flew New York to Paris in his single-engine aircraft, the Spirit of St Louis.

It was the $US10 million Ansari X-Prize that triggered Rutan’s development of SpaceShipOne. The prize was offered to anyone who launched a vehicle that could carry three people into space twice within two weeks. With core funding from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen - now a part-owner of the spaceplane technology - Rutan was able to devise a solution and win the bounty. The whole project cost an estimated $US20 million - a bargain in aerospace design terms.

Those with that kind of loose change - $US20 million - can now hire government-run spacecraft. Since 2001, the cash-strapped Russian space agency has been offering flights to the International Space Station aboard its tried-and-true Soyuz capsules. You have to train for six months and then strap into a tiny capsule atop a thunderous rocket; but you do get to wear a spacesuit and spend a few days in zero gravity. The flights are offered by Space Adventures, a US space travel company that has sent four astronaut-tourists into space. One of those four is Iranian-American businesswoman Anousheh Ansari, the first woman in space, whose 11-day trip was last month.

Latest astronaut-tourist, Anousheh Ansari just after her return to Earth

Ansari donated some of the money for the X-Prize won by Rutan. She’s the founder of the US company Telecom Technologies, and she recently formed a partnership with Space Adventures and Russia’s Federal Space Agency to create a fleet of sub-orbital vehicles for commercial passenger travel.

Even hotels in space are being investigated. Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas is pioneering an expandable orbital space station, based on Nasa technology. The company successfully launched a test module in July. Established by Robert Bigelow, founder of the Budget Suites hotel chain, he has reportedly set aside $US500 million for the venture.

Like early air travel, commercial space travel will at first be expensive and a little risky. As more and more people fly, technology will improve and prices will fall. Advances in propulsion will make sub-orbital flights cheap and mundane. Eventually, a visit to an orbital hotel will cost as much as a trip to Mount Everest or a cruise to Antarctica: not cheap, but definitely worth saving for.

Wilson da Silva is the editor of COSMOS science magazine and one of the Australians due to fly on Virgin Galactic’s spaceliner service when flights begin.