Date:1 June 2011
Forget Italy or the Bahamas. Soon, you will have a more exotic stamp to add to your passport: outer space. So, how will you get there and what exactly will the trip be like? PM consulted the visionary engineers now building next-generation private spacecraft. Here’s a sneak peek at humanity’s ultimate tourist destination.
There are dozens of kilometres to go before you’re an astronaut. But at an altitude of 15 000 metres, your spaceflight is under way. That’s when WhiteKnightTwo, the plane that has been in control so far, releases your craft like a massive bomb, and it starts to free-fall.
After a 900 m drop, SpaceShipTwo’s rocket fires. The craft bucks. The thrust presses you deep into your seat, building as you climb. On paper, you’re experiencing nearly 4 g’s, equal to four times Earth’s gravity. In practice, this gradual ramp-up to Mach 3 is smooth and exhilarating. The media might focus on the weightlessness you’ll soon feel, but that’s not the point. You don’t spend up to six years on a Virgin Galactic waiting list, or longer than that, maybe an entire lifetime, dreaming of floating. The dream was always to land a seat on a rocket ship.
Not everyone shares this dream, or even respects it. Decades ago, the world watched in wonder as the first Nasa astronauts escaped the atmosphere to circle the planet and later set boots on the Moon. Today, being one of the first 100 customers to put down $200 000 (about R1,34 million) for a trip into space has earned you a place in Virgin Galactic’s founders group.
From the wider world, that honour has inspired a collective shrug. After all, starting with Dennis Tito’s $20 million ride aboard a Russian Soyuz in 2001, a handful of citizen astronauts flew earlier and higher (notably South African Mark Shuttleworth, who did it in April 2002). Tito and the six Space Adventures customers who followed him made it all the way to orbit, where they boarded the International Space Station.
The craft that Virgin Galactic flies, SpaceShipTwo, barely kisses the void at a peak altitude of 109 km, offering just 4 to 5 short minutes of weightlessness before gravity pulls it back into the atmosphere. It may be a giant leap for the leisure class, but for mankind’s expansion into space, it’s hard to imagine a smaller baby step.
Of course, no one signs up for the amenities: there are no flight attendants passing out champagne or directing your attention to the bathrooms. Rocket ships don’t have flight attendants – or bathrooms. They have rockets, which are sinking those 4 g’s straight into your chest as the blue sky outside your window drains to black. Part of you hopes the ascent never ends – this amount of power seduces. In fact, many of Virgin Galactic’s customers are pilots or “people who simply love flight”, says CEO George Whitesides.
SpaceShipTwo is lean and efficient, more like an experimental aircraft than a commercial plane. A special mother ship hauls it into the sky, then hybrid rocket motors take over; the craft returns to the runway in a controlled glide. It is the direct descendant of SpaceShipOne, which took the $10 million Ansari X Prize by making two suborbital flights within two weeks in 2004. Virgin Galactic partnered with the vehicle’s developer, Scaled Composites, to create a follow-up to the winning design, and after years of development, SpaceShipTwo was unveiled in 2009. It’s carried aloft by WhiteKnight- Two, and along with seats for a pilot and co-pilot, it has enough room for six passengers to briefly unbuckle and drift around the cabin.
Virgin Galactic isn’t the only company with suborbital aspirations in 2012. XCOR Aerospace plans to undercut Virgin with R630 000 flights on its two-person Lynx space plane; tickets for Armadillo Aerospace’s vertical launching and landing rocket will start at R670 000. According to Whitesides, Virgin Galactic is already looking past suborbital, throwing its support behind the development of orbit-class shuttles from both Sierra Nevada Space Systems and Orbital Sciences Corporation.
Although the private space industry is growing, it’s far from viable, or proven. That’s where you come in. Some day they’ll say that mass space travel started in 2012. Before it extended into orbit and beyond, the suborbital hops sustained a global industry. And you were there, as a deep-pocketed early adopter, a zero-gravity guinea pig, a philanthropist donating to a dream of private spaceflight that sounds like science fiction and might never be profitable.
Most of all, though, you were there as an astronaut – or a spaceflight participant, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – on SpaceShipTwo.
The transition to nearly zero g, or microgravity, happens quickly, and at an altitude of 100 km, your float time is under way. Here’s where your training matters. You’ve been in microgravity before, on multiple parabolic flights, where 727s perform an undulating series of swoops and soars, creating something like weightlessness for up to 30 seconds at a time. The sensation is sickening for a small percentage of people, but for most, it tends to focus all attention on the suddenly novel mechanics of motion in a gravity-free environment.
When passengers aren’t giggling, they’re moving all wrong, trying to swim in midair or pushing too hard off walls and objects. It takes a little practice to turn the volume down, stop being amazed at this altered state and remember to look out of the window.
The window is where you’re headed. Not to take a picture – after all, the craft is studded with cameras inside and out, to discourage participants from frittering away precious time squinting into their own point-and-shoots – but to see what’s out there. You push off the seatback, keeping your legs and arms tucked close.
Everyone on board has some sort of plan, and they all start the same, with a drift toward one of the wide, circular windows scattered liberally throughout the craft. The 5-minute countdown is ticking away, and it’s non-negotiable. When SpaceShipTwo’s arc turns into a fall, it falls hard, peaking at 6 g’s. That’s potential blackout territory, and serves as the craft’s effective flight ceiling – any higher, and passengers would stay weightless longer but face even more g-loading upon re-entry.
You prepared for that too: during your three-day pre-flight training at New Mexico’s Spaceport America, you practised the breath-clenching tricks fighter pilots use to keep from blacking out during high-speed manoeuvres. That’s the part of the trip, the ride down, that will test your mettle.
The descent will come in a few minutes. Right now, you are 109 km high. The Earth fills your view. It’s all that matters.
It’s called the Overview effect. It’s not a single epiphany, but rather a series of them, all triggered by the simple act of staring at the world from space. After a full week in orbit, it’s been a while since your last big one. From an earthward window in the habitat, you watch a fire blooming somewhere in the American Midwest, along the Michigan-Ohio border.
That was an early realisation – that something is always burning. And that you can always see it, even when the smoke from a single burning house rises in a column and spreads, pooling against the dome of the atmosphere to cover a whole state.
Earth-gazing is one of the few luxuries aboard a space station. Of the handful of cylindrical habitats docked together to form this orbital space station – each one launched individually by Bigelow Aerospace, inflated in orbit and steered into place – none holds a floating spa. Even as more habitats are added, the station expanding like a massive balloon animal, most will hold sleeping quarters and laboratory space.
Maybe one day a hospitality firm will erect a true space hotel – little clusters of private rooms with body-length windows and gourmet cuisine that doesn’t ooze out of pouches. But for you, it’s back to the grind. After all, no one goes to space to look at Earth all day. Most people here are flown into space at their companies’ expense – in your case, to create protein crystals that grow purer and larger in microgravity for more precise drug testing. For the foreseeable future, space will be a workplace.
You fought for your spot, but for most of the thousands willing to risk that climb aboard a three-stage, orbit-class spaceship, the costs are prohibitive. This has almost nothing to do with fuel – which can account for as little as 0,5 per cent of an orbital flight’s price tag – and a whole lot to do with disposable vehicles.
Even the most cost-effective rockets, such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9, are ditched midflight. “A 747 costs around a quarter-billion dollars,” says SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. “It doesn’t cost half a billion dollars to fly a round trip. That’s because you don’t destroy them after one use.” South African-born Musk estimates that true reusability – a double-stage rocket design, or boosters that could fly themselves home – would lower costs by a factor of more than 100. However, it would also be “one of the most difficult and important inventions that humanity will ever achieve”, he says.
In 2022, rockets are cheaper but far from reusable. So, while suborbital travel has exploded over the past decade, with a few thousand flights per year and prices settling in the R130 000 to R200 000 range, the orbital market is dominated by research-minded corporate and government clients that are willing or able to pay many millions for a week or two in space.
Even the visitors who pay their own way aren’t really tourists; they float through these same lab modules with their own for-profit research projects or experiments. “We know that anyone we’re going to bring up, even for a short flight, won’t just want to float around and take pictures,” says former astronaut Leroy Chiao, today an executive vice president at Excalibur Almaz, which has purchased Russian space station modules for potential deployment. “Pretty soon that gets old. The people doing this want to do something meaningful.”
Your time in space is running out. Tomorrow – in 24 hours, that is, since here the Sun rises every 90 minutes – you’ll be leaving, heading home in a shuttle that’s scheduled to arrive at the station any minute. It’s the same kind you rode up in: a Dream Chaser, carrying six passengers, one pilot and all the research gear and resupply cargo that can fit in the hold.
The trip home, you’ve heard, is smoother than many suborbital flights, since the craft angles gradually into a 1,6 g’s reentry rather than diving in a relatively steep decline. The hardest part of orbital travel, it’s said, is orbiting, and all the strange forces this environment exerts on the human body.
The most obvious effects include fluids shifting, which raises blood pressure as well as pressure in the lungs, face and eyes. For some, sleep can be difficult. And for most, there is some level of motion sickness. Richard Garriott, a computergame designer and the sixth civilian astronaut, says roughly 80 per cent of people feel sick in orbit, and pilots and rollercoaster enthusiasts don’t get a pass.
“There’s no correlation we can . nd between motion sickness on Earth and motion sickness in microgravity,” says Garriott, who is Space Adventures’ largest shareholder. It was his trip to the ISS in 2008 that cleared astronauts who’d had laser eye surgery to go orbital. Until then, doctors had feared elevated pressure might temporarily distort their vision.
It was a physical ailment that helped secure your spot on the space station. There were plenty of other applicants at your pharmaceutical company, most of whom could conduct the same research. But you happen to have Type 1 diabetes. The opportunity to collect data on microgravity insulin injections and the day-today fluctuations of your blood sugar tipped the scales. These are the early days of the orbital-data gold rush, when a single procedure or study is often valued in the millions.
Each flight is a major investment, and companies like yours want to squeeze the most out of every trip. More of those investments are inbound. An announcement over the PA system sends you back to the window. The sun is rising, again, and the Dream Chaser’s white surface is almost too bright to look at. Its Falcon 9 booster is long gone, and the shuttle – a smallerwinged, sawed-off cousin of Nasa’s – is slowly rotating into a docking position.
Behind it, you see more fires on Earth’s surface. This isn’t the Midwest, though. It’s the Amazon rain forest, which has been burning here and there since you first reached orbit. For decades, in fact, astronauts have watched that land smoulder.
The orbital view is harsh and matter-offact. There is beauty below, but humans are everywhere, their cities and suburbs filling the most livable spaces, the indelible signs of industry stitched across the others. This is your final epiphany: it’s not a big world at all. It’s smaller than you can possibly describe.
It’s not a traffic jam, but there is congestion in orbit. The pilot nudges your craft into a slow, slightly woozy spin as you stand by for clearance from the FAA. You don’t mind the wait. You’ve never been on an old-fashioned rocket ship, with a massive liquid-fuel booster trailing the crew vehicle. There’s a lot of potential energy sitting behind you – enough, it seems, to make it to the pocked, luminous rock now wheeling into view.
Ideally, there would be a countdown, an old Nasa-style voice crackling T-minus updates over the radio. But compared with what Apollo astronauts experienced, your blast-off to the Moon from about 300 km in orbit is a relatively casual a€ air. The pilot seated next to you in this well-appointed two-person shuttle confirms with traffic controllers that your flight path won’t intersect with the orbit of the half-dozen habitats hurtling around the planet, and you almost hope he misses the launch window.
If he did, you would spend an extra hour circling Earth, sitting in the cockpit of an almost comically small spaceship perched atop a mammoth booster vehicle at least 10 times its size. That would make this feel more like a mission and less like a joyride.
You wonder whether anyone is watching from one of the habitats or from Earth itself as the booster attached to the back of this shuttle fires. Probably not. Lunar flybys are almost universally ignored and generally considered a costly, pointless side trip for the idle rich, who have all but run out of adventures in space. Besides, privately funded rovers have been ambling through lunar craters for years, and a handful of civilians have already looped around the Moon, back when that kind of a mission was, you know, hard.
Of course, nothing in space is actually easy. The shuttle you’re in, which is similar to the Lynx suborbital space plane that used to fly four times daily or as often as 800 hops per year, is nothing like the cramped, no-frills Soyuz capsule that Space Adventures managed to swing around the Moon many decades after Apollo.
Instead of peeking through portholes, you have a panoramic view of the stars and the approaching lunar surface. An additional, miniature habitat module sits behind your shuttle so that you can spread out during the five-day trip. What makes this flight so expensive isn’t the duration or the training required, which are almost identical to those of an orbital stay. It’s the sheer energy needed to travel 386 000 km and back, supplied by the booster mated to your craft.
This kind of ticket once cost as much as R1 billion, with space. ight participants footing the bill for a colossal amount of gear to be hauled into space: a crew vehicle and either a pair of rockets to take that craft orbital and then around the Moon, or a single, larger rocket that could do both.
In 2042, the price is in the low millions, thanks to a series of breakthroughs. The biggest of them was the strange rise of the beamship. This radical redesign of orbit-class spacecraft started small, with tiny, unmanned vehicles powered by ground-based microwave arrays. The beams would track a craft’s hot-plate-like underside as it flew, heating and expanding the hydrogen onboard, producing more high-velocity thrust than traditional oxygen-and-hydrogen-burning rockets. The advantages of beam-powered flight are cumulative: smaller, simpler, more stable craft would also be inherently lighter, and the heat exchanger that serves as a microwave target could act as a heat shield during re-entry.
“I know this sounds like science fiction the first time you hear about it, but when you look at the actual details, the numbers, it’s not all that far-fetched,” says Kevin Parkin, who heads Carnegie Mellon’s Microwave Thermal Rocket project in collaboration with Nasa.
Scaling up from robotic resupply missions to cheap, booster-free manned flights was inevitable, and brought the price of an orbital ticket down below R700 000. In 2042, beamships regularly ferry cargo and passengers to orbit, while the purely chemical rockets and capsules are being re-tooled for manned missions to asteroids, Mars and other deep-space destinations. Every so often, a booster is tested by pushing a beamship around the Moon – in this case, yours.
A couple of days into the flight, your lunar loop is nearing the halfway mark. Back in the cockpit, the pilot points out major features as you fly 100 km above the Moon’s surface, but mostly this leg of the trip is quiet. You’re silent, watching craters flow by and imagining how long it will take, how many more flights like this, before boosters will be completely reusable, able to regularly land on that craggy, alien landscape, tank up with fuel harvested from automated lunar mines and lift off again. How long until the Moon is teeming with life instead of dotted with roving machines. When, you wonder, will space really open up?
Then Earth rises from behind the Moon, bright and bluer than any picture, any video or any description can capture, a glow that seems to spill into the cracked, lifeless lunar bowls and valleys below. It’s as beautiful as those Apollo astronauts claimed, so pretty it’s almost embarrassing.
Even so, your mind is already skipping ahead. Someone must be booking a flight around Mars. You should look into that.
Your spaceship is almost ready
Manufacturer: Scaled Composites
Size: 18,2 m long, 12,8 m wingspan
Seats: Two crew members, six passengers
Propulsion: Carried to 15 000 metres by the WhiteKnightTwo plane, then propelled to a maximum altitude of 109 km by a hybrid liquid/solid-fuel rocket.
Launch plans: Scheduled to begin flights by 2013 from Spaceport
America in New Mexico.
Manufacturer: XCOR Aerospace
Size: 10,6 m long, 7,3 m wingspan
Seats: One pilot, one passenger
Propulsion: Lifted by four liquid-oxygen-and-paraffin rockets to just above 100 km. Like SpaceShipTwo, Lynx returns to the runway in a controlled glide.
Launch plans: Flight testing begins in 2012 at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
Manufacturer: Sierra Nevada Space Systems
Size: 13,7 m long, 7,2 m wingspan
Seats: One to two pilots, five to six passengers
Propulsion: Launches vertically on a multi-stage rocket, like the Atlas V, then hybrid rockets propel it; lands like shuttle.
Launch plans: SNSS hopes to fly Nasa crews to the space station by 2014 and is exploring private flights.
Size: 4,26 m, 3,65 m diameter
Seats: One pilot, six passengers
Propulsion: Launches on SpaceX’s two-stage Falcon 9 rocket; splashes down in the ocean.
Launch plans: The unmanned, cargo-hauling version has left and re-entered the atmosphere; SpaceX will fly it at least 10 more times before taking on Nasa passengers.
Manufacturer: RSC Energia
Size: 7 m long, 2,7 m diameter
Seats: One pilot, two passengers
Propulsion: Launches on the three- stage Soyuz FG rocket; additional propulsion is required to reach the Moon.
Launch Plans: Once a customer pays R1 billion for the trip, Space Adventures expects to have systems in place within three and a half years.
Size: 4,26 m, 3,65 m diameter
Seats: Three to four
Propulsion: Launches on the Falcon Heavy rocket, which has triple the Falcon 9’s maximum thrust and/or increased range.
Launch plans: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says a lunar flyby would be feasible – once the Falcon Heavy is built – for R1 billion to R1,34 billion.
Video: View a video of what the Virgin Galactic experience will be like. In addition, see the teaser trailer of Virgin Oceanic’s flagship sub on PM’s Web site.