You can leave and reenter the atmosphere, feel the kick of a rocket, and see the curvature of Earth. Step right up and lay down your 200 grand.
- By Craig Mellow
- Air & Space magazine, March 2006
(Page 3 of 4)
When it comes to how to deliver the suborbital experience, the unanimous industry machismo is happily replaced by a cacophony of competing designs and modi operandi: from the lean futurist lines of SpaceShipOne, beside a facsimile of which Virgin Galactic vice president Steven Attenborough makes a two-minute appearance with the air of a purebred among mutts, to the workhorse steel cylinder of Canadian Arrow’s proudly reincarnated V-2.
Some rocketeers envision mid-air launches from carrier aircraft, like the White Knight that toted SpaceShipOne. Others are planning on launch pads at New Mexico’s spaceport-to-be, for which the state has just committed $250 million and is concluding long-running negotiations with two old-line ranching families that had grazing leases on the site. Others prefer barges on the Great Lakes. The unofficial X-resourcefulness prize goes by general acclaim to the Toron-to-based da Vinci project. Their ungainly cosmic prototype is slated to dangle until 70,000 feet under the harness of a yet-to-be-built world’s biggest helium balloon, then fire its engines at that altitude. While competitors are paid by stargazing magnates from other fields, da Vinci has survived so far on less than $2 million and thousands of volunteer hours from patriotic Canadian engineers.
But the basic dichotomy in the nascent space tourism business comes down to airplane guys vs. rocket guys. (Few women have yet been drawn to the industry, save as PR operatives on a degeekifying mission.)
The suborbital rocket experience will be an express trip: 15 minutes or so from liftoff to touchdown, but filled (would-be purveyors promise) with enough noise, adrenaline, and wonder to last a lifetime. “This way you’ll feel what Alan Shepard or Gus Grissom felt,” enthuses Starchaser’s Steve Bennett. “You’ve got a spacesuit on, you’re strapped in, these huge engines roaring under your back. This isn’t some kind of flying tour bus.”
Airplane men sniff at the idea that passengers would actually choose 15 minutes crammed into a hatch and a kidney-thumping vertical return to earth, compared to their suspense-building two-hour ascent to the heavens, Learjet-like interiors, and the ease of alighting on wheels rolling down a runway.
The surest sign that the personal spaceflight revolutionaries are onto something may come from their favorite whipping boy, NASA. In a telling exhibition of if-you-can’t-lick-’em-join-’emism, Brant Sponberg, who manages a new NASA program to sponsor X-Prize–style derbies (see “Going Up?” p. 58) joined Diamandis on the Las Cruces airport ramp to announce two: a Suborbital Payload Challenge, which will demand a flight “much higher” than SpaceShipOne’s 100 kilometers, and one for analog lunar landers.
This momentum for private space companies will not long escape the attention of restless venture capitalists, guesses Aneel Pandey, one more cashed-out dot-com’er who has recycled part of his gains into XCOR. “People in the investment community go through stages,” he explains. “There was tech, then house-building. Eventually they will cycle into space exploration.”
That doesn’t mean, though, that anyone is close to ready with a reusable edge-of-space ship built to a commercial budget and offering the comfort and reliability expected by super A-list passengers. “There’s not one big thing left to be done, there’s a thousand little things,” comments XCOR’s Greason, who, Quarter Pounders on Mars aside, is one of the industry’s more thoughtful figures. “Most of all we need flights. If you’re going to say that your system fails less than one time in a thousand, you’d better have 1,000 flights under your belt.”