Posted by: bkivey | 11 October 2010

“Take Me Out, To The Black . . . “

On 10 October VSS Enterprise  completed her first free flight from 45,000 feet to a successful landing at Mojave Air & Space Port as part of a test program to certify the craft for suborbital flights carrying paying passengers. The event was reminiscent of tests of another ship named Enterprise, although the most recent namesake is equipped for spaceflight. This effort, like the Anasari X prize-winning effort of 2004, is a privately funded space program whose $100 million development costs are being primarily bankrolled by Sir Richard Branson. The spacecraft and launch vehicles are being developed and built at aeronautical designer Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites.

If things go according to plan, in 2011 operator Virgin Galactic will start ferrying six people at a time into sub-orbital space on flights lasting about two and a half hours that include six minutes of weightlessness. The cost per person is $200,000 and to date over 300 people have paid for a seat. The only requirement for passengers, other than paying for a ticket, is the ability to pass a centrifuge test of 6 – 8 g’s.

Other companies are looking to get into the space tourism business, including XCOR ($95,000 per ticket) and Blue Origin (started by founder Jeff Bezos). Barring mishap, Virgin Galactic will be the first to start commercial operations, and they have the advantages of flight-tested hardware and the services of the most innovative aerospace designer alive today in Burt Rutan. Mr. Rutan has compared the safety of his craft to that of commercial airliners of the 1920’s, which is to say that flying into space is not going to be like boarding a 737 at the local airport.

Virgin Galactic is the most visible face of the private space industry, a commercial segment that is surprisingly robust. While large, expensive, and complex programs like NASA,ESA, and the Russian program have been necessary to develop the basic research, hardware, and procedures required to show that we can operate in space, the development of space access at a reasonable cost is going to be the province of private enterprise, because they’re going to have to make money doing it.

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