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Passport to space

Recently there has been a lot of talk about space tourism, mainly through private spaceships. Is this a market with significant profit potential, as the various space entrepreneurs claim, or is this an expensive public relations performance?

Tal Inbar, Galileo 112

space vehicle
space vehicle

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about space tourism, mainly through various private spaceships that are being planned or currently being built in the United States and Europe. The Virgin Galactic company founded by the British billionaire Sir Richard Branson has had competitors from home (including an initiative of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) and from abroad - with the announcement by the European aerospace corporation EADS Astrium of its entry into the space tourism market and the development of a spacecraft A new passenger, which will fly into space in 2012.

Is this a sustainable market, with considerable profit potential, as the various space entrepreneurs claim, or are we facing expensive PR stunts, which appeal only to bored millionaires looking for new thrills?

The White Knight of Rotan

Suborbital space tourism (in which the spacecraft reaches an altitude of about 2004 km, but does not enter the coffee orbit around the Earth) was made possible primarily thanks to the X-Prize competition and the team that won it in October XNUMX, led by the designer of the first manned private spacecraft, Brett Rutan ).

Rotan and his team built the spacecraft known as SpaceshipOne, which looks like a wide-wing squat plane. This spaceship is carried into the air to a high altitude by another plane of Rotan's design, known as the "White Knight". When the mother plane reached the intended altitude, the small spacecraft detached from its belly, fell a little to gain a safety distance from the plane that raised it to altitude, and activated its rocket engine.

After a short burn, the spaceship continues to climb to a high altitude - and performs an arcuate trajectory, in part of which its passengers get to experience a feeling of levitation, weightlessness (almost - this is a state of microgravity, which non-experts usually call "zero gravity"), which lasts a few minutes .

After hovering in space, the spacecraft returned to the Earth's atmosphere, and it glides to land as a lander and lands on a runway at the airport from which the mother plane took off with it about an hour earlier. Some tourist spacecraft currently under development will be able to land on a runway at a nearby airport using jet engines. These spacecraft have a certain advantage over hovering spacecraft, especially in stormy weather.

Two senior managers of Virgin Galactic recently visited Israel, on the occasion of the launch of the company's activities in the country. I spoke with Alex Tai, a former British Air Force pilot who holds several flight speed records and currently serves as the company's director of operations. According to the plan, Tai will fly the spacecraft on its first commercial flight, in which Richard Branson himself will fly, with his parents, wife and children. In talking with him I learned a lot about the company's future plans and various developments it is involved in, which are published here for the first time.

The shipping cost per kg

Computer simulation of Virgin Galactic's spaceport in New Mexico
Computer simulation of Virgin Galactic's spaceport in New Mexico

Referring to the different design of the space planes of the competitors (EADS and the Rocketplane company), Tai said that the idea of ​​installing jet engines in the spacecraft, for the purpose of self-launch without a mother plane, allows greater operational flexibility, but this flexibility is paid for in the carrying capacity of an aircraft Space - four paying passengers instead of six in a Virgin spaceship.

Furthermore, the weight of these engines can be converted into more fuel on a Virgin spacecraft, thus increasing hover time in microgravity. In response to my question about the possibility of using Virgin's spacecraft for scientific purposes, by launching scientific probes, while reducing the number of passengers or even in a mission with only a pilot, Tai said that the company is looking into the issue and that in the near future it will publish a notice about the possibilities for researchers to use in the space plane for research purposes.

A very interesting field, which Virgin Galactic aspires to enter, is the aerial launch of satellites into space. According to Tai, "We can dramatically lower the cost of space launches. I can't tell you how much, but the cost to launch one kg into space will drop significantly compared to the price today" (which stands at about 20 thousand dollars per kg of cargo to orbit, T.E.). Virgin Galactic's air launch plans will use the plane carrying the spacecraft, and a new launch vehicle, the details of which have not been released.

The company aims to enter the field of orbital space tourism at a more advanced stage, and even develop a unique niche of extremely fast flights between different destinations on Earth. Tai: "It's worth a flight of senior managers from London to New York, which will take a little less than an hour, instead of seven hours on an Airbus plane. Furthermore - do you know how much money it costs us to lodge pilots and flight attendants in New York? We sometimes pay for eighty hotel rooms a night! This will save on round-trip flights." Tai declined to specify timelines for the completion of Virgin Galactic's new ventures.

Europe is joining the game

Rocketplane's space plane
Rocketplane's space plane

At the air show held in Paris in June of this year, the European aerospace corporation EADS Astrium revealed plans for a new space tourism venture that was the fruit of its development. As part of this project, a small space plane will be built, which will be able to fly four passengers (except for the crew) to the edge of space, with a flight profile similar to that offered by Virgin Galactic, but with a fundamental difference: the Astrium space plane has two jet engines, which save the need for a mother plane and allow Takeoff and landing at many airports (unlike Virgin's spacecraft, which needs a special runway for the mother plane).

The target date for the first flight of the commercial European spacecraft is 2012, and in the conversation I had with the director of space tourism at EADS, Christophe Chavagnac, he stated that, unlike its competitors, the company does not plan to allow passengers to float freely. Schwaniak pointed out that the company prides itself on a special design of the seats in the spacecraft, which will give the passengers as much comfort as possible during the acceleration into space and when re-entering the atmosphere.

Greetings from Oklahoma

Another space tourism company that intends to take a bite of the space tourists' cake is the Rocketplane Global company from Oklahoma, United States. The company has been engaged for years in the development of a space plane based on a modified body of a well-known jet executive plane called the Learjet. Rocketplane Global is not only engaged in the construction of the space plane, but also in the development of the infrastructure for a new space port, called "Oklahoma Space Port".

This is a base that belonged to the US Air Force, from which huge B-52 type bombers used to operate. This base has a very long route, which allows the unique activity of various types of space planes. The company has environmental development plans that will also include a hotel, a space museum and a visitor center. The founder of the company announced in 2006 that he intends to open unique airline routes from Oklahoma to Hawaii, and from there to Japan. At the beginning of October, the company presented on its website the redesigned design of its space plane, which includes several changes compared to the basic model presented about two years ago, the result of experiments in a wind tunnel and computer tests carried out by the company's engineers.

A gimmick or a real and profitable market?

The market research company Futron, which specializes in the field of space, has published several basic studies that are used by the space tourism industry, as well as space analysts. The studies show that space tourism can generate considerable profit, provided that it does not remain the property of millionaires, and that the price of suborbital flights will decrease and stabilize at several tens of thousands of dollars.

In this situation, according to the analysts of Photoron, there is an annual market potential of billions of dollars, already at the beginning of the operation of the suborbital space flights. However, the company's economic experts point out that considerable profit is expected from orbital space flights for tourists on the one hand, and from the fastest point-to-point flight service on the planet, with a high-altitude transit, on the other hand.

Suborbital commercial spaceflights, and the companies that initiate them, are primarily intended to create a new market and profit from it. At the same time, the development of reliable and cheap spacecraft, which can be launched at short notice, is a paradigmatic change in access to space and will enable the launch on demand of satellites for diverse purposes - civil, commercial and security. We are at the beginning of a new space age, the commercial age, the beginning of which we are experiencing today and whose future is difficult to predict.

Think, for comparison, of the people who saw the Wright brothers and the pioneers of aviation over a hundred years ago, and of the media's response to the innovation of aviation. There is no doubt that the entry of huge companies and the raising of a lot of capital for the new industry will in the future allow many people to experience space flight directly, and at a much lower price than the expected price in the near future.

Virgin Galactic turns to the Israeli market

One response

  1. When I played years ago with the idea of ​​spaceships and space stations, the numbers I came up with are a little different from what is here!
    In order for 3 billion people from the potential world to visit space in a reasonable time of 10 years, about 5000 space stations with a capacity of 1100 people are needed each, of which XNUMX are employees and crew members, when each person will stay in space for about a week to try out all the facilities and experiences of space and more!
    And there is a need for 2000 spaceships (one hundred people in each spaceship) to transport people and cargo. In such a situation, at any given time, approximately 5 million people will be in space, and only then will it be possible to allow the experience of space to the majority of the relevant population in a reasonable time!
    And for all of this to be possible, an atomic fusion engine or an equivalent is needed, otherwise it's not really it!
    And despite that, everything we see today is a relatively huge progress and a promising start, and thousands of passengers on route flights will also make a difference compared to today!

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