Thursday, January 24, 2008

Rocket Spaceliner now more fact than fiction

Recently in another post, I lamented that it seemed unlikely that I would, in my lifetime, see an elegant spaceship like the Orion Space Clipper featured in the Movie "2001: A Space Odyssey". I imagined that such a vessel or something like it would be a likely next step in the evolution of the Space Shuttle. But no. Instead, NASA has decided to retire the shuttle fleet by 2010, and replace it with it's New Orion Spacecraft, which is based on old Apollo capsule designs. While efficient and practical, it doesn't capture the imagination like the elegant Pan Am Spaceliner from the movie.

But could it be, that such an elegant vessel is not really so far off? In the movie, Pan Am had created the beautiful spaceship. Even back then, they were speculating that perhaps such vessels would not be created by government, but rather by private companies, free enterprise and capitalism.

Pan Am no longer exists, but other companies do. One such company, Virgin Galactic, has plans for a new Rocket Spaceliner that will fly passengers commercially... and sooner rather than later!

Virgin unveils spaceship designs
Virgin Galactic has released the final design of the launch system that will take fare-paying passengers into space.

It is based on the X-Prize-winning SpaceShipOne concept - a rocket ship that is lifted initially by a carrier plane before blasting skywards.

The Virgin system is essentially a refinement, but has been increased in size to take eight people at a time on a sub-orbital trip, starting in 2010.

Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson said the space business had huge potential.

"I think it's very important that we make a genuine commercial success of this project," he told a news conference in New York.

"If we do, I believe we'll unlock a wall of private sector money into both space launch systems and space technology.

"This could rival the scale of investment in the mobile phone and internet technologies after they were unlocked from their military origins and thrown open to the private sector."

The 'experience'

Virgin Galactic has contracted the innovative aerospace designer Burt Rutan to build its spaceliners. The carrier - White Knight Two (WK2) - is said to be very nearly complete and is expected to begin flight-testing later this year.

Both vehicles are being constructed at Mr Rutan's Scaled Composites factory in California.

The rocket spaceliner will carry two pilot astronauts and six ticketed passengers. They will fly initially from a new facility called Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert.

The journeys will last about two-and-a-half hours from beginning to end.

Eight individuals will be aboard each flight

Passengers on SS2 will climb to an altitude of 110km, from where they will get to experience weightless for a few minutes, and see the curvature of the Earth and the black of space.

Seats cost $200,000. Virgin Galactic says more than 200 individuals have booked, and another 85,000 have registered an interest to fly.

Tens of millions of dollars in deposits have already been taken, the company adds.

Satellite potential

Sir Richard said the launch system would also be made available to industrial and research groups.

"The fact that this system will have the capability to launch small payloads and satellites at low cost is hugely important," he told the launch event at the American Museum of Natural History. [...]

Yes, I know, it's sub-orbital, not quite the Orion Space Clipper... at least not yet. But it's a start! It does go high enough to launch payloads into real orbit. That's impressive. And Virgin Galactic is not the only company working on such ships. A whole new industry is developing in this direction. See the full article for more pictures and information.

The future is here! Or at least pretty darn close. ;-)

Related Link:

Virgin Galactic reveals SpaceShipTwo, plans open-source starships

No comments: