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fly to the moon fly to mars Land an astronaut on an asteroid. With such ambitions, does NASA really have the time to play the role of bus driver to the International Space Station? Those behind the innovative private space industry claim they can do the dirty work better and cheaper, and this year, NASA will likely take them up on their offer.

by Sam Huo Warhobeck
Photo: John B. Carant

The article was published in the January 2010 issue of the magazine Popular Science on its editions in different languages, of course this was before the decision to cut the NASA budget, something that makes the industry even more relevant

the countdown. October 15, 2009: Virgin Atlantic's SpaceShipTwo rocket, designed as a rocket, sits in a Scaled Composites hangar in Mojave, California, waiting to be painted for its public debut in December. Photo: Popular Science
the countdown. October 15, 2009: Virgin Atlantic's SpaceShipTwo rocket, designed as a rocket, sits in a Scaled Composites hangar in Mojave, California, waiting to be painted for its public debut in December. Photo: Popular Science

Those who drive on the highway towards the Mojave Air and Space Port, 112 km in the desert north of Los Angeles, get the feeling that they are traveling in a world of ghosts. Defunct 747s and DC-10s, along with smaller 727s and DC-9s, some dismantled, resting on scaffolding, can be seen from miles away, frozen and deserted. Next to the road, at the entrance to the airport, is parked a Convair 990 plane manufactured in 1962, which began life as an American Airlines passenger plane. Now the winds are whistling through the engine and birds are nesting in its wheel wells.

Mojave is a cemetery, a place where commercial passenger planes end their "life". But last October, the day I went to visit there, there was life in the blue and wide sky, and the sight was more impressive than that of the most innovative passenger plane. I saw a kind of catamaran flying across the sky from east to west. When he got closer, it looked like two executive jets flying in the structure, kissing a wing. Closer, I saw that it was two twin vehicles connected by large, slightly tilted upper wings. Two silent jet engines were installed on the outer wing of each plane. The aircraft I was looking at was Virgin's Mother Eve spacecraft, the launch pad for smaller rockets that in the coming years, according to Virgin Galactic, will begin flying paying passengers into space.

Visualization of the Spaceship 2 private spacecraft flight. Image: Virgin Galactic
Visualization of the Spaceship 2 private spacecraft flight. Image: Virgin Galactic
Eve's flight, named after the mother of Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, over the old airliners, faded in the hot sun, was the only clear sign of a spaceport at the airport. A day will come when passengers will take off from Mojave and other spaceports, with fancy underground terminals and shiny spaceships standing by, ready for launch. But today, to see what is really planned for the future of this small piece of desert, you have to go through a door locked with a chain link fence and into a large hangar, where the core of Scaled Composites, the space company behind Eve, and all of Virgin Galactic's futuristic space equipment is located . Technicians in overalls and white lab coats buzzed around the spaceship like bees around a honeycomb. Working with nail guns, hot glue guns, sanders and vacuum cleaners, they are busy building the outer layers of the SpaceShipTwo prototype - an 18m long aircraft with feathery wings that Virgin planned to unveil in December. This aircraft is part of the company's big plan to open up space flight, if not to the entire general public, at least to a slightly wider part of humanity than could even be dreamed of in the past.

Jim Tye, aeronautical engineer and chief project engineer for SpaceShipTwo, advised me to tread carefully as he offered me a tour of the spacecraft's six-passenger cabin. When it reaches space, Ty explained to me, the passengers will be able to hover around and look out the windows on Earth. Brett Rutan, founder of Scaled Composites, made history in 2004 when pilot Brian Binney flew his original prototype, SpaceShipOne, into subsatellite orbit to win the $15,240 million Ansari X Prize. The flight path of its successor, the three times larger SpaceShipTwo, will be similar: Eve releases the craft at an altitude of about 90 m and a system powered by nitrous oxide combines oxygen with solid rubber rocket fuel, igniting the burner for about 115,800 seconds, On its own, that is enough to fly the spaceship to its cruise track, which is at an altitude of about XNUMX m, where the passengers will be invited to do what we are warned against on regular passenger planes: unfasten the seat belt.

You too, say Virgin, can join this space taster for only $200,000, maybe even next year, although Will Whitehorn, the company's president, says that even now you will have to take a number after the 300 passengers who have already made a financial deposit to secure their place. For now, space tourists (a term the industry strongly dislikes, preferring to call them "space flight participants" or "space explorers") are the cornerstone of Virgin's business model. But while NASA is struggling to finance its far-fetched dreams of missions to the moon and beyond, and as its spacecraft is on its way to retirement, Virgin and dozens of other private spaceflight entrepreneurs see a golden opportunity to do something fundamental and much more profitable. Beyond flying wealthy passengers to orbit in space, says Whitehorn, Virgin will also be able to launch rockets and satellites into space, provide relatively cheap transportation for scientists who want to conduct experiments in space in conditions without gravity, and even establish a private training program for astronauts. From this point of view, the space tourists become more than just rich people who set out to have an amazing experience just for the sake of pleasure, but also as those who financed the progress of research in space. This is actually privatization of the space industry.

As I traveled around the spaceship, I thought that 100 years ago humans were beginning to digest the fact that man could actually fly, and many viewed flight as entertainment for the rich few. "The public overestimates the possibilities inherent in aviation, and imagines that in a generation it will be able to fly to London in a day," wrote William Pickering, professor of astronomy at Harvard University, in 1908; "It is clearly impossible."

Houston, we have a solution

NASA's work plan is full of question marks. Will the President and Congress authorize her to continue with plans to land astronauts on the moon again? Or fly them to Mars? Or asteroids? Or to none of them? But what is certain is that the space shuttle is nearing the end of its mission. The last planned mission for the US space shuttle will end this year, although most observers expect it to remain in active service well into 2011.

There are some basic tasks with high profit potential that the retirement of the shuttle will leave behind for a private company that will be ready and able to enter the space that will be created, including the transfer of cargo and scientific experiments, launching and repairing satellites, and even cleaning up some of the "space junk" floating around the Earth like the remains of shipwrecks in the ocean. The job is not as glamorous as flying humans into space to experience a weightless adventure. One daring entrepreneur claims, for example, that he is able to organize a trip to the far side of the moon and back for a modest sum of only about 100 million dollars per ticket. But the basic logistics tasks are also extremely important, and if the private companies prove they can do them, they could form the backbone of an entirely new industry.

As part of its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, NASA has already approved large contracts with two private American companies, SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, one of the founders of PayPal, and satellite manufacturer Orbital Sciences Corporation, which include at least 20 Trips designed to deliver supplies to the International Space Station in the next six years. The value of the contracts is set to be three and a half billion dollars, if the companies meet the performance requirements, including successful engine and propeller tests. This fact increased the motivation of the managers of the companies that joined the project. "Cargo transportation does not have a glamorous aura," Frank Culbertson, the senior vice president of Orbital, explained in June to a special panel convened at the request of President Obama to discuss NASA's future work plan. "But this is a reality necessity if we want to make sure that the United States will continue to fly in space."

There is also another incentive that may accelerate the development of commercial activity in space. While the White House and Congress are going over the details of a new report produced by the panel, known as the Augustine Commission, which clarifies that in the interim after the shutdown of the shuttle, NASA will have no way to reach the space station; A fact that gives a monopoly to Russia, which charges 35 million dollars per flight seat from private space tourists, and NASA - 51 million dollars. The United States has already signed a deal in the amount of 306 million dollars for only four flights to the International Space Station, on the Soyuz space shuttle, and in view of the fact that they are a monopoly, the Russians have no logical reason not to raise the price of the ticket after the deal ends in 2013.

These payments could become a political football, or even a problematic matter if the two powers enter into a meaningful conflict in one of the geopolitical hot spots like Georgia or Iran. A period when the Russian shuttle will be the only player in the field is inevitable, unless the United States takes the very unlikely step and abandons the experiments and research on the space station that cost it billions of dollars, it will have no choice but to pay.

So that this very uncomfortable situation shines a brighter light on the political radar screens, we point out the fact that there are private companies like SpaceX - which stubbornly claim that they have ready execution plans to fly astronauts on American aircraft faster and cheaper than anything NASA has in execution processes. Musk says SpaceX's Dragon — a reusable space shuttle designed to carry cargo and crew to satellite orbit — will be able to make flights to the space station for $20 million a seat. "I am ready to commit to a maximum of three years from the moment of teaching," he said last November. Of course if he gets a solid multi-year deal. Several other companies are aggressively competing for pieces of the COTS pie. In the end - these parts will be worth billions of dollars if - and again, there is a big question mark here - if the private companies manage to keep their promises and meet the performance requirements.

According to an investment index, there is distinctly more optimism in the market than ever before, in regards to the ability of the private industry to get the job done, both in flying passengers and moving cargo. Not everyone believes, of course. Even some staunch supporters of the private market in Congress express skepticism about the inclusion of private companies in government space projects. Orbital lost control of a Taurus rocket carrying a small NASA satellite; SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket failed three attempts before successfully launching a dummy payload into satellite orbit; And in the most tragic case, three Scaled Composites workers were killed in 2007 when a tank of rocket propellant exploded during tests at the facility. "Despite their best efforts, some private organizations have not been able to bring launch plans to fruition," says Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, who has a large number of employees at NASA. "Any accolades given by the supporters cannot erase the painful truth of the failed performance."

Private industry will not take us to the moon - a point of almost total agreement among industry executives. What it can do is perform relatively short-term missions while NASA will focus on the more distant reaches of space. "The rationale here is that if NASA wants to go far, it needs to do the hard work and leave the simpler work to the private market. A manned space flight is not a simple matter, but it is something we have been doing for fifty years," says Burton Alexander, president of the Federation of Commercial Space Flight Companies, based in Washington, DC. "NASA can actually focus on doing the "cool work" - Mars, asteroids and beyond - "and in the long run, there will be an industry that is not built only on NASA. NASA becomes a user, not the sole supplier."

Thirteen former NASA astronauts, who performed 42 space missions, from the Gemini and Apollo missions to the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, also supported this approach in a journalistic article published in the Wall Street Journal last October. "We believe that the commercial sector is capable of fully and safely carrying out the essential mission of manned transport to low satellite orbit," the astronauts wrote. The space agency, they said, "should invest its unique resources to push forward the boundaries of space exploration and not to repave the road to the flight of a satellite orbit that it already crossed half a century ago."
The Augustine panel also clearly sketched an astronaut transfer route there. "NASA needs to explore outer space and do new things," said the panel's chairman, Norman Augustin, the former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin. That would leave the low-orbit satellite missions "for a commercial effort, in our view."

Humanity's Plan B?

Get a space entrepreneur to talk about the "why" of space tourism, and great ambitions will begin to float to the surface. "Many people ask, of course: Why waste money at all, with all the problems we have here on Earth?" Musk says. "But not only are there significant things we can learn from the universe and our place in it, when we go out into space; There are many things we can learn about the Earth itself." He points to climate change, ozone depletion, pollution. "And if you really want to go for the big picture", adds Musk, who clearly likes to go for the big picture himself, "I think it is indeed very important that we start making progress in expanding life outside the Earth and that we start treating ourselves as a multi-stellar entity."

Musk is not pessimistic about life on Earth. "The chances are excellent that we will exist in a good state during the next few centuries", he says, but "there is always a chance of a disaster around the corner, something terrible that happens - like a supervolcano or a deadly virus, a meteorite, or some scientific invention that will create a miniature black hole". Existence of life on other planets, according to Musk, is like a huge insurance policy for humanity.

"You don't buy life insurance because you believe you're going to die tomorrow. But you buy it to prepare for such a case." In total, the private companies are planning more than 40 space flights in satellite orbit, manned and unmanned, until 2014 [see "Who is in charge?"]. The California company Masten Space Systems, which recently won the million dollar prize in a competition to simulate a landing on the moon held under the auspices of NASA, hopes to eventually complete an unmanned lunar exploration vehicle. Jeff Bezos, the founder of sent unmanned satellites for test flights in sub-satellite orbit over land he owns in West Texas. He is also making long-term plans for a private space shuttle that takes off and lands vertically. The website of his space company, Blue Origin, says the company is working "patiently and step-by-step" to make spaceflight and solar system exploration more affordable. Meanwhile, the billionaire Robert Bigelow, the founder of Budget Suites of America (Suites of America), foresees that in the future there will be a great demand for his "space hotels", and he has already sent two prototypes of inflatable space structures into space.

A painted model of the planned LYNX manned rocket. Illustration: Popular Science
A painted model of the planned LYNX manned rocket. Illustration: Popular Science

It is true that no bride has yet lined up on the satellite flight path to wear the wedding dress of Japanese designer Ari Matsui in space; And no young couple has yet gotten to spend their honeymoon on the moon. However, Virgin Galactic says it is right on schedule with its SpaceShipTwo plans, which will be followed by five more vehicles if the prototype passes government regulations overseeing commercial spaceflight. And a few hangars away from the SpaceShipTwo hangar, XCOR Aerospace is working on the Lynx, its spacecraft for subsatellite orbital flights.

Jeff Garrison, president of XCOR, which participated in Augustine's committee, is developing a variety of inexpensive rocket engines that burn a variety of fuels. But what is most interesting to potential private passengers is that the Lynx can carry only two people - a pilot and a customer. "Our approach is very different from Virgin Galactic's," the somewhat angelic-looking Garrison explained to me late one afternoon as we sat in the fiberglass model of the Lynx's cockpit. “Our passengers will have a more genuine experience; Because with us they will feel just like astronauts."

start up Burning liquid oxygen and kerosene, the main engine of XCOR's Lynx spews flames during a test held last March in the Mojave Desert. Photo: Popular Science
start up Burning liquid oxygen and kerosene, the main engine of XCOR's Lynx spews flames during a test held last March in the Mojave Desert. Photo: Popular Science
But of all the entrepreneurs I spoke with, Musk was the loudest evangelist of them all. "Life can't just be about trying to solve problems," he said. "I mean, if all we do in life is solve one more crappy problem, it's depressing. We need to do things that inspire people."

out of nowhere

Back at Scaled Composites, Ty led me into the cockpit of the SpaceShipTwo. It was a calm early morning over the Mojave, the sky over Southern California was a flawless blue, as I felt the engines start and listened to the pilots count down to take off. The color of the sky while flying upwards to a height of 10,000 m began to turn gray, crimson, purple, dark blue, then they became almost black; I enjoyed a spectacular view from the window. I could see the peninsula of Baja California and the peninsula of the San Francisco Bay Area, the tip of Mount Whitney (the highest peak in the central 48 US states), the endless Pacific Ocean, and the roundness of the Earth.

Actually, I wasn't quite accurate in some of the details. Just like the old airliners along the runway, the SpaceShipTwo didn't move an inch at the Mojave Air and Spaceport. I was inside a simulator, a few meters from the workers and the nail guns. However, I was still captivated by the experience. Now the Earth was surrounded by a ring of bright blue light, and it was amazingly quiet. Ty pointed upwards, and I had a hard time not smiling along with him. "It's beautiful up here, isn't it?" He asked. I had to nod.

* Sam Huey Verhoek, former reporter for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, lives in Seattle. He is writing a book about the "De Havilland Comet" (the world's first jet passenger plane) and the Boeing 707.

6 תגובות

  1. Let's hope for a decent private space industry before the "Fall of the Angels" materializes...

  2. excellent!
    I have been waiting for a long time to see an in-depth article on this topic here.

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