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Has the Dawn of Commercial Space Travel Arrived?

Finding Dulcinea | 10 December 2009

VSS Enterprise on its milestone first free flight
VSS Enterprise on its milestone first flight

by Colleen Brondou

Virgin Galactic has unveiled SpaceShipTwo, the latest in a long series of efforts to commercialize space travel.

Welcome to the Space Tourism Industry

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic unveiled the first of their SpaceShipTwo planes on Monday at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Named V.S.S. Enterprise, short for Virgin Space Ship Enterprise, the plane is the first of five SpaceShipTwo planes in the works, Ker Than reported for National Geographic News.

Measuring 60 feet long, the plane can carry two pilots and six passengers. Some 300 passengers have already made a deposit on the $200,000 tickets that will buy them a two-and-a-half-hour flight into suborbital space.

“We’ve all been patiently waiting to see exactly what the vehicle is going to look like,” Peter Cheney, a Virgin Galactic ticket holder from Seattle, told Than. “It would be nice to see it in the flesh.”

After the spacecraft goes through a variety of safety tests, the date of the first passenger flight will be set, most likely in 2011 or 2012.

Background: SpaceShipOne

The design of the V.S.S. Enterprise is based on SpaceShipOne, “a reusable manned spacecraft” that was designed by Burt Rutan, an aviation designer, and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004, Than wrote.

At the time of its record-breaking mission, the BBC called SpaceShipOne “the first private manned spacecraft to fly to the edge of space and back.” After the 90-minute flight, Mike Melvill, SpaceShipOne’s pilot, told the crowd, “I think I’ll back off a little bit now and ride my bike.”

As Wilson da Silva points out in COSMOS magazine, perhaps the most significant aspect of SpaceShipOne was “something the multi-billion-dollar space agencies of the United States, Russia and China” hadn’t been able to do: Find “a cheap and completely aerodynamic solution to re-entry.” Rutan was able to achieve this with a “carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic.” Until SpaceShipOne’s triumphant return to Earth, other spacecrafts had to use titanium heat shields or ceramic tiles.

Historical Context: Pan Am’s First Moon Flights Club

Following a televised visit with the crew of Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve in 1968, Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan American Airlines, announced that Pan Am would begin accepting reservations for passenger flights to the Moon, according to COSMOS magazine. A New York Times headline on Jan. 9, 1969, proclaimed: “200 on Pan Am Waiting List Are Aiming for Moon.”

The response was so overwhelming that Pan Am created a First Moon Flights Club. “People took the news seriously because Trippe was a visionary,” da Silva writes.

Pan Am ceased operations in 1991.

Opinion & Analysis: Is the space tourism industry a viable one?

Aside from safety concerns and technological considerations, is the market for space travel a sustainable one? Roger Launius, a spaceflight historian at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., compared the V.S.S. Enterprise to the Concord jet. Air France and British Airways flew the Concord jet for nearly 30 years even though it was a money-losing venture.

“The problem is, what’s the market?” Launius asked. “There is a community of very wealthy adventurers who want to do this, but how large is it?”

In addition to space travel, Branson and Rutan think Virgin Galactic’s technology could be applied to intercontinental flights, making travel between New York and Sydney, for example, just a few hours long.

“Although such flights would be prohibitively expensive for the average consumer,” da Silva writes, “there may well be a niche market of super-charged executives with little time and somewhere else to be, or celebrities and supermodels looking for an ego trip.”


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