Space Race II

Author:  Mo Alexander
Date:  March 2007

". To boldy go where no man has gone before,"

– Captain Kirk, Star Trek: The Original Series.

Words such as Captain Kirk's epitomize the real exploits of Soviet (now Russian) and American civilian space programs that have maintained their presence in space in new and changing ways for over 40 years. Since Sputnik's launch in 1957, projects ranging from Apollo to Soyuz to the current International Space Station (ISS) have shown the changing presence of nation-states in space. State-sponsored programs, which sent highly trained astronauts, have held a monopoly on space travel. Regular civilians could only dream about the experience. However, two events set into motion a movement that would change all that. The first is the visit of businessman and first space tourist Dennis Tito to the ISS in 2001. The second and more seminal was the successful launch of the first private manned spacecraft, SpaceShipOne that claimed the Ansari X-Prize in 2004. Today with multitude of ventures that are in various stages of execution, the future of private space travel is starting to look very real.

Experience Space Now

The company with the most developed plans are that of Space Adventures, Ltd. Since making history by sending their first paying client, Dennis Tito, to the ISS, the company has since successfully sent three more clients to the ISS as well. Tito spoke positively in early 2001 about his then upcoming trip.

"It's really a privilege to be involved in the first mission of this kind and to lead the way for other private citizens to do the same thing." Tito said.

Tito and all those who followed him would go through months of rigorous astronaut training and medical examinations to ensure that they were mentally and physically prepared for the challenges of space flight. After months of preparation, the clients would blast off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz-FG rocket, and carried into space by a Soyuz TMA spacecraft. Upon reaching orbit, the Soyuz TMA would be released from the rocket and set a course to dock with the International Space Station. The Soyuz TMA spacecraft is the newest model in the Soyuz program that has been the workhorse of the Russian (and formally Soviet) space program since its inception in the 1960s.

The latest client, Anousheh Ansari, completed her ten day stay aboard the ISS in September 2006. Ansari chronicled her experience online in a blog for the world to see during her mission ( "The separation of final stage was the most noticeable to me and then Weightlessness. This wonderful feeling of freedom that puts a smile on everyone's face. I slowly lifted off my seat and continued giggling. I just couldn't believe it. to be honest with you, the whole thing is still like a dream to me." wrote Ansari.

Her adventure in space came at a hefty price tag however: each of the Space Adventures clients paid an estimated $25 million for the trip. With prices like this, only very wealthy clients can go into space.

This is where Virgin Galactic and the makers of SpaceShip2 hope to offer the same space experience that Ansari raved about at a much reduced price.

Suborbital Plans

Virgin Galactic, a subsidiary of businessman Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group, teamed up with Scaled Composites to develop and deploy a larger version of Scaled's landmark SpaceShipOne spacecraft and White Knight launch vehicle in 2004. "Our vision is to successfully build the world's first environmentally benign space launch system and prove once and for all the commercial viability of a safe space launch system," said Branson at the 2006 Wired NextFest.

Mock up of the Xerus rocket plane built by XCOR and run by Space Adventures (Space Adventures)

Mock up of the Xerus rocket plane built by XCOR and run by Space Adventures (Space Adventures)

The new versions of the spacecraft, called SpaceShipTwo (SS2) and WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), are currently under construction at Scaled Composites facilities in Mojave Spaceport, Calif. SpaceShipTwo will be roughly the size of a private jet and WK2 will be larger than a Boeing 757. SpaceShipTwo is supposed to hold 8 people, 2 pilots and 6 passengers.

The Virgin Galactic SS2/WK2 space system would work in the following way: SpaceShipTwo would be attached to WhiteKnightTwo's underbelly and would take off from a runway like a normal airplane. At 50,000 ft, SS2 would release from itself from WK2 and engage its rocket engines to propel the craft to suborbital altitudes around 62 miles above sea level. At these altitudes the passengers are high enough that they no longer feel a strong tug of Earth's gravitational field and are free to enjoy the experience of weightlessness.

Conceptual Art for the WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo at launch altitude. (Virgin Galactic)

Conceptual Art for the WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo at launch altitude. (Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic hopes to start operations from Mojave Spaceport and eventually launch from a yet to be built Spaceport America in New Mexico. The company plans to charge $200,000 per person for a flight. Despite the price tag, Virgin Galactic's Chief Operating Officer Alex Tai revealed the company already has a list of 65,000 potential flyers and $15 million in deposits already paid to reserve a seat aboard a Virgin Galactic flight. Virgin hopes to finish SS2/WK2 by early 2007, start test flights by early 2008, and commence commercial operations by 2009.

Space Dreams

Now with the door burst wide open for personal space travel, a multitude of companies are now racing to develop their own plans. There was now better place to show this off what space could become than At the 2006 International Symposium on Personal Spaceflight and subsequent Wirefly X Prize Cup rocket festival held the week of October 16. Industry members presented new a wide range of new projects and partnerships.. "I believe there has been great progress for the personal spaceflight industry over the past year as indicated by increasing partnerships with significant players including the relationship of Lockheed Martin with Bigelow Aerospace, NASA with SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler, as well as the evolution of SpaceDev's business," said Patricia Hynes, director of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium and co-chair of the Symposium.

There were a few notable plans by companies present at the Symposium-Bigelow Aerospace's plans for an inflatable space station. The planned space station would have a variety of uses ranging from research to extended stays. There is a planned deployment for the prototype around 2009-10. The cost of stay is an estimated $10 million.

The SS1/SS2 flight plan. (Virgin Galactic)

The SS1/SS2 flight plan. (Virgin Galactic)

XCOR Aersopace's Xerus rocket plane is to carry one pilot and one paying passenger for suborbital flights. The plane is able take off and land horizontally and will cost $102,000 per customer. Upon completion, Space Adventures has contracted use of this vehicle to possibly compete with Virgin Galactic.

Additionally, reported in 2005 that Space Adventures was looking to launch a trip to the moon called Deep Space Exploration –Alpha. In cooperation with the Russian Federal Space Agency and Russian space design bureau Energia, the company plans to use existing Soyuz TMA spacecraft and an extra propulsion module known as Block DM to send people to orbit the moon. The group hopes to launch as early as 2008 and are currently looking for customers who are able to pay the estimated $100 million per person price tag.

Anousheh Ansari in her space suit during pre-launch training. (Space Adventures)

Anousheh Ansari in her space suit during pre-launch training. (Space Adventures)

Reality Check.

With big, rosy dreams for the future, a reality check is often in need. David Livingston, a business consultant and host of the talk show "The Space Show", told that not all the projects he sees being developed in the private space flight industry are viable. "If I went by business fundamentals, I'd have a hard time with a lot that's going on in this community," Livingston said. He expects the industry to go through a shake-up, and those that survive will go on truly make space a tourist destination.

So the days are coming when an ordinary citizen will be able to by a ticket to visit a hotel in space, and they seem closer than ever before.