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New Mexico Spaceport Announced 2006-03-30

Posted by clype in Articles of Interest, Money, Science, Scotland.

As a business card, it takes some beating: ‘Will Whitehorn, President, Virgin Galactic.’

A few years ago, one might have been excused for presuming that Edinburgh-born Mr.Whitehorn was on his way to a ‘Trekkies’ convention’, but this week ‘Virgin Galactic’, the space tourism company established by Mr.Richard Branson, fanfared its very real plans for commercial space flights within two years. It has also announced the first purpose-built commercial spaceport, to be built in New Mexico at a cost of 129 million GBP.

Among celebrities who have already booked their six-figure tickets for the sub-orbital flights is Ms.Sigourney Weaver, star of the ‘Alien’ films, while Professor Mr.Stephen Hawking has also expressed interest.

‘Virgin’ has ordered five spacecraft from ‘The Spaceship Company’, formed by Mr.Branson and visionary aviation designer Mr.Burt Rutan, whose California-based ‘Scaled Composites’ built ‘SpaceShipOne’, which rocketed into history in 2004-10, to become the first private piloted craft to reach a height of 62 miles twice in a fortnight, winning the coveted ‘Ansari X-Prize’.

The avowed aim of the 5.7 million GBP ‘X-prize’ was to ‘jump-start the space tourism industry’ and, a year and half later, it’s all systems go, with at least two companies already taking, or poised to take, those tourists who can afford it beyond the bounds of Earth.

So, the commercial space race is well and truly on, as Mr.Whitehorn will tell ‘The Edinburgh International Science Festival’ on 2006-04-16. Thirty years ago, Mr.Whitehorn was flying ‘Chipmunk’ trainers over his home city with ‘The Air Training Cadets’. Next year he hopes to ride on some of the test flights of ‘SpaceShipTwo’, in the countdown to ‘Virgin Galactic’s’ first paying-passenger excursions into space, scheduled for 2008.

It still seems like the stuff of science fiction — you can almost hear those lingering strains of ‘The Blue Danube’ that accompanied the memorable space-station sequences in Mr.Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘2001’, made back in the days when ‘NASA’ was still a year away from putting a man on the moon. Since then, space flight has remained the prerogative of government agencies, with only a handful of manned space flights taking place each year.

Granted, there have already been three ‘space tourists’, all wealthy men, taken to ‘The International Space Station’ (‘The ISS’) in Russian ‘Soyuz’ spacecraft. But the ride cost them each some 12 million GBP, and the (dare one say?) astronomical costs associated with spaceflight have been a major obstacle to the emergence of a privately-funded space industry. Mr.Whitehorn argues that ‘Virgin Galactic’ is changing all that.

[Picture of Will Whitehorn]
‘The average rocket launch for a satellite costs between 50 and 100 million GBP. We’ve now embarked on building an entire operating system from a prototype, “SpaceShipOne”, which was built for 25 million USD [14.2 million GBP] and flew twice into space within two weeks.

‘”SpaceShipTwo” will carry eight people.

‘We want to prove that using new technology and launching spaceships from the air at great altitude is a far more safe, cost effective and environmentally friendly way to do it.’

Like its prizewinning predecessor, ‘SpaceShipTwo’ will be carried to 100 km by a strikingly-configured jet-propelled ‘mother ship’. Parting with the mother craft, the spaceship will use its hybrid rocket engine to soar to some 65 miles above the Earth (true space is usually agreed as beginning at an altitude of 62 miles).

Its passengers, who will each have paid 57 200 GBP [100 000 USD] for the privilege and undergone three to four hours’ training, will, says Mr.Whitehorn,

‘experience even faster acceleration than a “NASA” astronaut experiences as the craft rockets beyond the atmosphere.

‘They’ll see the blackness of space, and the curvature of the blue planet below them.

‘They’ll experience weightlessness, and be able to leave their seats and move around the cabin.’

They’ll also have to wear what are decribed as ‘NASA space nappies’, as there will be no toilet access on the space vehicles. But aside from sanitary needs, could the average passenger cope with the g-forces involved?

‘Eighty per cent of people could fly safely, those who can’t will predominantly have heart conditions or circulatory problems, and we’ll be able to identify them in medical checks beforehand.’

It has taken governments four decades to get 500 people into space. Mr.Whitehorn says he hopes to do that many in the first year. The company has already accumulated 7.49 million GBP worth of 11 440 GBP deposits. It hopes to carry 50 000 passengers over ten years, eventually bringing ticket prices below 50 000 GBP after five years.

‘Virgin’ is not alone in its bid to boldly go with paying punters. Ask Mr.Whitehorn who he regards as competition in this new space race and he’ll reply that there is none,

‘not in terms of developing the kind of systems we’re using — although if we saw another system out there and thought it could do the job for us, we’d be buying it as well.’

But earlier this year ‘Space Adventures’, the Virginia-based company that flew the world’s first three space tourists, Mr.Dennis Tito, Mr.Greg Olsen and Mr.Mark Shuttleworth, on Russian spacecraft to ‘The ISS’, announced plans for a fleet of spacecraft and two spaceports, in the United Arab Emirates and Singapore.

A fourth ‘Space Adventures’ client, Japanese entrepreneur Mr.Daisuke Enomoto, has been undergoing cosmonaut train ing in Russia for a flight to ‘The ISS’ scheduled for 2006-09.

Last year 2005 the company announced plans to run commercial space flights round the moon by 2010 — at  57.19 million GBP/seat, using the ‘Soyuz’ spacecraft.

‘We’re going to launch that within the next four years,’ says The Chief Executive of ‘Space Adventures’ Mr.Eric Anderson.

[Picture of Eric Anderson]

‘A lot of companies doing sub-orbital flights will also be going round the Moon.’

‘Space Adventures’ will run the circumlunar flights through its longstanding partnership with ‘The Federal Space Agency of the Russian Federation’ (‘The FSA’) and The Russian Space Corporation, (‘RSC Energia’). A dozen people have expressed serious interest in the lunar flight, and one is close to signing that 100 million USD contract.

‘Space Adventures” role is that of tour operator, and in 2006-02 it announced plans for a commercial spaceport in Ras Al-Khaimah, one of the United Arab Emirates, which is putting up some of the estimated 151.57 millionGBP cost. A similar project for Singapore is also planned.

The company has contracts with ‘The FSA’ and with ‘Prodea’ — a private investment firm founded by the Ansari family, who funded the ‘X-Prize’ — to develop a fleet of sub-orbital commercial spacecraft. Mr.Anderson isn’t disclosing schedule details,

‘… but we’re on a fast track. We believe we’ll be operating the first commercial sub-orbital vehicles in the next few years.’

Mr.Whitehorn may raise his eyebrows, but, like his ‘Virgin Galactic’ counterpart, Mr.Anderson doesn’t regard ‘Space Adventures’ as having any real competition.

‘We’re the only ones who can actually take tourists into space right now,’ he says, pointing to his collaborations with the Russians,

‘but over the next several years, I’m sure we’ll have many competitors, but we welcome it; competition is required for progress.’

Meanwhile, construction starts later this year on a spaceport in New Mexico, funded by a package from the state government, with ‘Virgin Galactic’ as the launch customer.

But how safe will these pioneer space-trippers be? Both Mr.Whitehorn and Mr.Anderson agree that there simply cannot be the kind of safety assurances offered by a modern airline. Both talk of a safety level initially on a par with early commercial aviation, though clearly this hasn’t deterred advance bookings.

While Mr.Anderson sees commercial space flights remaining the prerogative of the rich for at least the next 50 years, Mr.Whitehorn is convinced that mass space tourism is a certainty for the future:

‘Just as aviation found the solutions, we can. In 1939, if you wanted to fly from London to New York, in today’s money the ticket price would be 40 000 GBP; now you can get a ticket to New York for 300 GBP.’

Quite apart from these contenders, other space entrepreneurs are working on giving the first rocket tourists somewhere to go. ‘Bigelow Aerospace Inc’, founded by the Las Vegas hotel magnate Mr.Bob Bigelow, is working on inflatable module technology developed by ‘NASA’, with a view to developing the world’s first space hotel. Orbital module tests are due this year.

While ‘NASA’ has received stick from the likes of Mr.Rutan for failing to come up with an innovative low-cost space vehicle, the US American space agency is itself now funding two prize competitions for private sub-orbital space technology, and Mr.Whitehorn has no doubt that ‘Virgin’ and ‘NASA’ could work together. Other commentators, including Britain’s Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees, have visualised private space enterprise as carrying the torch of space exploration in the future.

‘If you look back at our own history,’ says Mr.Whitehorn,

‘you’ll find private companies have explored the frontiers of our Earth, alongside government efforts, for 2 000 years.’
In the meantime, what will those first space excursionists do in their relatively cramped spacecraft? One might make unseemly jokes about a 62-mile-high club, but ‘Virgin Galactic’ has already received enquiries from one would-be film-maker interested in the erotic possibilities of zero gravity.

‘They gave fairly graphic description of what they wanted to film, which we reckoned might not be physically possible,’ laughs Mr.Whitehorn.
‘Virgin’ has, though, booked the first honeymoon in space — if a two-and-a-half-hour space flight alongside six other passengers counts as such. The ticketholders are Director of America’s National Space Society Mr.George Whitesides and his fiancée, astrobiologist Ms.Loretta Hildago, and we’re assured the spacecraft is unlikely to have old tin cans tied to its tail.

• Will Whitehorn will address the Edinburgh International Science festival on 2006-04-16 for further information, visit www.sciencefestival.co.uk. Also www.virgingalactic.com and spaceadventures.com.

Space Travellers:

  • 1957-10-04: ‘Sputnik’ satellite blasts into space
    The first man-made object ever to leave the Earth’s atmosphere was the Russian satellite, ‘Sputnik’. It orbited the Earth at an altitude of 560 miles and completed a full orbit every hour and a half.
  • 1957-11-05: Russians launch dog into space
    The Soviet Union launched the first living creature into the cosmos on ‘Sputnik 2’. The dog, named Laika, was reported to be calm during the first hours of the flight. It was understood that she passed away painlessly a week after take-off, but, in 2002, it was revealed that she actually died from overheating and panic within hours of leaving Earth.
  • 1958-12-13: Monkey dies after space flight
    The US launched a monkey named Gordo, in the nose of a ‘Jupiter’ rocket. He survived a 300-mile journey into space, but, when the rocket dropped into the South Atlantic, a technical problem with the recovery gear meant it sank, taking Gordo with it.
  • Two monkeys did, however, survive a flight in 1959-05, becoming the first living creatures to last the trip.
  • 1961-04-12: The first man in space
    Russian cosmonaut Mr.Yuri Gagarin won The Space Race by becoming the first man in space. Three weeks later, Commander Mr.Alan Shepard became the first US American astronaut to achieve the feat.
  • 1966-02-03: Soviets land probe on Moon
    The Russians made the first controlled landing of an unmanned spacecraft on the Moon. The USA followed soon after on 1966-06-02.
  • 1969-07-20: America lands first man on Moon
    Next day Mr.Neil Armstrong took his small step…
  • 1986-01-28: Seven dead in space shuttle disaster
    The US American space shuttle, ‘Challenger’, exploded, killing all seven astronauts on board. The five men and two women — including the first teacher in space — were just over a minute into their flight from Cape Canaveral in Florida when the rocket blew up.
  • 2001-04-28: First space tourist blasts off
    Billionaire businessman Mr.Dennis Tito paid 14 million GBP for his eight-day holiday aboard ‘The International Space Station’. The former ‘NASA’ employee was 60 years old, and from California.


1. VSS Enterprise Mock-Up « Clipped News - 2006-09-29

[…] 2006-03-30 New Mexico Spaceport Announced […]

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