October 4, 2009

Future Space Tourists Still Waiting For Next Take Off

On Oct. 4, 2004, the first privately manned spacecraft named SpaceShipOne, demonstrated that a rocket capable of carrying passengers could fly 62 miles above the earth and could do it twice in two weeks, according to the Associated Press.

By showing its reliability and commercial viability, SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize.

Due to the success of SpaceShipOne, British mogul Richard Branson announced he would be using the technology for a second generation ship called SpaceShipTwo, under the Virgin Galactic banner.

It seemed that anyone with the money and an interest in space would soon be experiencing what pilot Brian Binnie called "literally a rush - you light that motor off and the world wakes up around you."

According to Virgin Galactic president, Will Whitehorn, his company continues to hold $40 million in deposits by 300 customers for future flights. But there is a growing impatience over delays.

A few customers, including freight business owner Edwin Sahakian, got a peek at SpaceShipTwo this summer at the Mojave Airport, where it is being built by aviation designer Burt Rutan.

Its engine had not been assembled yet and it was a dark gray color, like the color of carbon fiber. Sahakian was impressed with one aspect though: lots of big windows.

Like SpaceShipOne, SpaceShipTwo will be carried up by a special jet aircraft called the WhiteKnightTwo. Before the pilot ignites the motor, the spaceship must be released at a high altitude. After reaching its trajectory, it will fall back into the atmosphere and glide to a landing.

"Things have never looked brighter, but spaceflight is a business that requires patience, so we seem to be two years away from suborbital spaceflight - like we have been since 2001, right?" Eric Anderson, president and CEO of Virginia-based Space Adventures, told the Associated Press. "But that's okay. Most of these companies have made it through the global economic crisis. I'm confident that once this industry opens up it will exceed everyone's expectations."

The project was dealt a setback two years ago when three technicians were killed in an explosion while testing SpaceShipTwo's propellant system. Scaled Composites, which was bought by Northrop Grumman Corp., was cited for five workplace violations and fined $28,870 in connection with the blast that also critically injured three men.

Peter Diamandis, the co-founder of the X Prize Foundation, believes that things have not been at a standstill.

"You'll get another large injection of excitement in public interest once those vehicles begin operating and the public starts getting flown," he told AP.
"More than $1 billion has been invested in the industry, regulatory roadblocks have been addressed and as many as three different passenger spaceships will emerge in the next 18 to 24 months and being flying," he added.

The X Prize Foundation has been posting a series of blog items commemorating the five-year anniversary of SpaceShipOne's victory.

"As we celebrate the five-year anniversary of SpaceShipOne's winning of the Ansari X Prize, I'm taking the liberty to reflect on a number of key questions...On what worked well, what didn't, and what we learned," says Diamandis.

Alan Boyle, a science editor for Cosmic Log, reports that another Mojave milestone is expected to take place later this year, when SpaceShipTwo finally rolls out of its hangar at Rutan's Scaled Composites shop. The rollout is still on track to take place on Dec. 7.

Alan Walton put down $200,000 to be among one of the first in space and he says if there's no fixed launch by his 74th birthday, he intends on asking for his deposit back.


Image Caption: Artist's concept of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo together on ascent. Courtesy Virgin Galactic


On the Net: