On Monday, billionaire space advocate Richard Branson and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez dedicated a new building devoted to commercial access to sub-orbital space: Spaceport America. This will be the new home of Virgin Galactic, Branson’s company that will take people into space.
Technically, this was simply a press event. There were no launches, and there’s nothing really new here. However, I do think this was important. Virgin Galactic is using vehicles built by Scaled Composites, the company that built SpaceShip One, the first private rocket that took a human into space (in 2004). Shortly thereafter they won the Ansari $10 million prize by being the first privately built rocket to get back into space after a 14 day turnaround. Tickets for SpaceShip Two are for sale at a mere $200,000 a piece.
In the first part of this post, Researching at the edge of space, I talked about the scientific frontier about to be opened up by suborbital flights up to 100 km (62 miles) above the Earth’s surface. The possibilities for science are exciting… but at the meeting I attended about these rockets, there was something else going on. And as interesting as the science involved with this will be, there was something bigger on everyone’s mind. At the meeting, the electricity about it was palpable, and it was obvious what it was.
We are at the very threshold of easy, inexpensive access for humans to space.
At $200,000, a flight to the edge of space is cheap. That’s well within the budget for a lot of people on this planet. Not me personally (dagnappit) but I know people who can afford that. And hundreds of human beings across the world have signed up.
This isn’t make believe. No, this is quite real. So real, in fact, that Alan Stern and Dan Durda, both friends of mine, both astronomers, and both men with their eyes firmly planted on the skies, created this video. You really, really need to see this.
They also have a followup video about the training of the first class of citizen astronauts as well.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will probably be the first company to launch private citizens into space. They have already sold 300 seats and have deposited $39 million in advance sales! At the meeting, Steven Attenborough with VG said that they expect Space Ship 2 to do a "drop test" (literally be hoisted up to 50,000 feet and dropped by an airplane for a test landing) in the fall of 2010, and undergo its first power tests by the end of the year.
Humans will then be loaded up and sent into space in 2011. That’s next year.
People always lament that we’re past the year 2000 and we still don’t have flying cars. Personally, I don’t trust 95% of the people driving on the ground, let alone in the air. But it doesn’t matter, because the future is here. It’s now. Next year, people will be flying into space. Into space.
This is beyond cool. This is fantastic!
No, scratch that. The base root of that word is fantasy, and this is as real as it gets. While a lot of people have been whining about how the future never comes, my friends and a lot of others will soon be strapping themselves into rockets and making the dreams of Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and millions of others come true.
Per ardua ad astra. Hodie.
I recently attended a conference in Boulder, and I have to admit that before I went I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Now I do, and I’m very glad I went.
The meeting was the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference 2010 (NSRC2010), and its goal was to figure out how best to exploit an upcoming revolution in space travel: private companies making suborbital launches to the very edge of space.
Space, in this case, is defined as being 100 km (62 miles) above the Earth’s surface. There, the atmosphere is incredibly thin, which has obvious benefits for astronomical observations (less turbulence blurring images, darker skies to see faint objects, less air to absorb ultraviolet and infrared light). But perhaps just as importantly, the planned flights will have up to three full minutes of microgravity — what is popularly but inaccurately called weightlessness or "zero g".
That’s where my initial skepticism came in. What can you do with only a few minutes of free fall? Well, it turns out you can do a lot. There are a host of biological, engineering, and astronomical experiments that can be run in this environment, ones that would be far too prohibitively expensive to do on, for example, a Shuttle mission.
But this next generation of rockets from Virgin Galactic (Richard Branson’s effort with Space Ship 2, a model of which is pictured above), Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos from Amazon.com), and others will reach a height making a lot of this science possible. The region up to 100 km is too high to reach by balloon, and too low for orbital rockets, which is why it’s been dubbed "the ignorosphere". But it has its uses…
Observations of the Sun, for example, may not need much time to do because (you may have noticed) the Sun is pretty bright, so a three or four minute flight is enough to get some good data. The way incoming energy from the Sun couples with the Earth’s atmosphere is not hugely well understood, and a lot of it happens in this region high above the planet’s surface. Effects of low gravity on the human body can be tested, as well as on plants and other biological systems.
In fact, enough science can be done on these trips that the conference itself brought in 250 people interested in the topic. I was surprised at how many people came, as were the conference planners themselves: they were expecting half that many.
But there’s a lot of confidence here. Lori Garver, NASA Deputy Administrator, gave a keynote talk, saying that NASA will pledge $15 million per year to this new field of research in the new budget (pending approval by Congress). Alan Stern, an astronomer and conference organizer, announced that Southwest Research Institute, for whom he works, will put up $1 million of its own money for researchers to fly into space, too!
Given that each flight will cost something like $200,000, this is a pretty decent pool of money to investigate the ignorosphere. That may sound like a lot, but in fact a lot of scientific grants are in this range; a few years back I had my own personal research grant on Hubble that was for more than $40,000, and while I was at Sonoma State University our small team routinely applied for educational grants for $50k and more. Getting $200k for a flight is well within the reach of a lot of researchers. Of course, they’ll need more to cover equipment and such, but compare that to the millions upon millions needed for an orbital flight, or even several million for a sounding rocket, and you start to see that this is a pretty good deal.
NASA itself can use this sort of thing as well, testing equipment and new technology to see how it behaves. This is a whole lot cheaper than putting something up on the Space Shuttle (or on the next generation of orbital rockets).
It was exciting to sit and listen to all the buzz about this new, intermediate frontier. But as interesting as the science was, there was something more important going on at this conference. Something that, I suspect very strongly, will change the way we look at space travel.
And that will be the topic of my next post on this. Stay tuned.