When the rocket plane SpaceShipOne flew past the edge of space in October 2004, Sir Richard Branson created a new company called Virgin Galactic with the idea of using a larger version of the spacecraft to take the well-heeled and adventurous on suborbital jaunts for fun and profit. Branson confidently predicted that a space tourism industry would arise that would take tens of thousands of people into space a year in a relatively short time.
Rocket science is another name for something really difficult for a reason. Virgin Galactic has suffered numerous delays and one fatal accident over the past 15 years. However, finally, Branson’s company may be about ready to start taking paying customers past the edge of space. He will not be alone.
According to CNET, Virgin Galactic is looking at Spring 2020 as the time it will start flying paying passengers. The company is currently building a second SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, the first having last flight-tested successfully in December 2018. Of course, the caution that milestones for spaceflight are often a moving target, especially for Virgin Galactic.
In the meantime, CNBC is reporting that Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, plans to fly its New Shepard rocket ship twice more before taking people on suborbital jaunts. That schedule would place the first paying passengers being flow by that company into 2020 as well.
Each company’s rocket ship has a different approach to flying people into space.
Virgin Galactic’s rocket will be slung underneath a conventional aircraft called the White Knight. The White Knight would take the SpaceShipTwo rocket, with about six passengers, a pilot and a co-pilot to a high altitude. Then the rocket plane will fire its engines and fly to just past 100 kilometers, considered by scientists to be the edge of space. Then, for a few minutes, the passengers will be able to experience weightlessness and magnificent views of the curvature of the Earth. Then the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane will reenter the atmosphere, descend, and then land on a runway like any aircraft.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard will launch like a conventional rocket, with a capsule attached with six passengers. The flight will be performed automatically so there will be no need of a pilot or copilot. At one point the capsule will separate from the rest of the rocket and continue past the edge of space. Like the passengers in the Virgin Galactic ship, those choosing to fly Blue Origin will experience weightlessness and cool views of the Earth. While the rest of the rocket lands on its engines, the capsule will descend and float down to Earth on a parachute.
The price for each flight is in the range of $250,000. The flights include a few days of training before the experience of a lifetime.
For a time during the 21st Century, a company called Space Adventures, buying a seat on the Russian Soyuz, provided flights to and from the International Space Station to the wealthy and adventurous. Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian American entrepreneur, and Richard Garriott, a computer game magnate, and son of NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, are among those who have paid tens of millions for a week or so long stay on the International Space Station. The company hopes to start up its tourist missions again aboard the Boeing CST-100 spacecraft once it becomes operational.
In the meantime, companies such as Bigelow Aerospace are planning to build commercial space stations. Bigelow has already flown inflatable modules, on attached to the International Space Station, to test the concept. The company plans to build what is in effect a space hotel in low Earth orbit. People will pay to stay in such facilities, flown there and back in commercial spacecraft such as the CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon.
Commercial space advocates have long believed that space tourism is going to be the “killer app” that will expand human civilization beyond the Earth, increasing the number of spaceflights and lowering their cost. People will fly to orbiting space hotels or even, eventually, resorts on the moon much as people take cruises in the Caribbean or vacations in Europe. Space, once a place that government astronauts and the super-rich could only go to, will become a place where everyone can visit.
It looks like that future will start in 2020, next year.