Tag Archives: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic wants to fly you from L.A. to Tokyo in one hour, through space

Image: Spaceport Berlin

We’ve written a lot about Richard Branson’s company, Virgin Galactic. After working on the first commercial spaceport and helping NASA fly into orbit, now, they want to revolutionize commercial air flights. Namely, they want to fly people from L.A. to Tokyo in no more than one hour, through space.

The shuttle concept would be pretty similar to the company’s SpaceShipTwo. A large plane lifts the shuttle, raises it a few km above ground level, then “drops it”; the shuttle’s hybrid rocket engine ignites, heading it to space and whatever the destination may be. The system would ensure incredibly low durations for the flights – L.A. to Tokyo in 1 hour, and the U.K. to Australia in 2 hours. Virgin Galactic’s CEO, George Whitesides declared:

“You can imagine a SpaceShipThree or a SpaceShipFour going outside the atmosphere, then coming back down outside an urban area and landing,” Whitesides said. “We don’t have to accept the status quo. We can imagine a vehicle using liquid oxygen or liquid hydrogen to get us across the Pacific in an hour. You could do that.”

virgin galactic

SpaceShipTwo. Image via Virgin.

This makes a lot of sense when we consider Virgin’s recent plans and developments. Virgin’s edgy and visionary leader, Charles Branson has always planned things on a grand scale. Ten years ago, he attempted to buy an already declining Concorde, but his bid was rejected. In 2012, the company developed LauncherOne, an orbital launch vehicle which can launch “smallsat” payloads of 100 kilograms (220 lb) into Earth orbit. Furthermore, Branson has advocated, time and time again, a supersonic commercial airline. Now, it seems he will finally be able to accomplish his dream especially as Virgin is working with the European Space Agency (the European “equivalent” of NASA) for this project.

Of course, the technical and scientific realization would be immense – but will this actually work, commercially? Will this idea actually make money, or is it just a wild (space) goose chase?

“Credible market studies have not been done, or at least published,” Derek Webber, executive director of Spaceport Associates, wrote in a 2008 paper exploring the idea. “The optimum technical design has not been established. The ground infrastructure is not in place.”

“Price levels are uncertain,” he continued. “It is not even clear whether such flights are best characterized as tourism or as transportation; whether the passengers would be primarily tourists or business persons on urgent trips.”

Branson at last night’s event. Image: Vice.

The technology is still in its infancy and we’re still a long way from discussing commercial success, but this is clearly more than just a billionaire’s dream; and if I had to put money on someone to develop commercial air flights through space, that man would definitely be Richard Branson. Oh, I forgot to mention that one of the key partners in this enterprise will be Grey Goose – one of the world’s most famous Vodka Companies. Who else would announce his ambitious plans alongside a vodka company?

“We are delighted that GREY GOOSE is joining us as a partner on our incredible journey. This evening of disruptive and rich debate about the future of travel, a wonderful celebration of human achievement, is at the heart of the Virgin Galactic GREY GOOSE partnership. We share a passionate pursuit of the extraordinary which we look forward to celebrating together as the world’s first commercial spaceline builds and grow,” says Branson on Virgin’s website.

The Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket lifts off from space launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., early Tuesday. This launch marks the first time, a private company sends its own rocket to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.(AP Photo/John Raoux) Photo: Ap/getty / SL

SpaceX finally launches for the ISS. Sparks new age for private spaceflight

The Private Company SpaceX launch of its Falcon 9 rocket and a unmanned Dragan capsule turns night into day during liftoff from a Cape Canaveral launch pad early Tuesday as it streaks over a model of NASA's space shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center, heading for a rendezvous with the International Space Station, opening a new era of dollar-driven spaceflight. (AP Photo/Florida Today, Craig Rubadoux)  Photo: Ap/getty / SL

The Private Company SpaceX launch of its Falcon 9 rocket and a unmanned Dragan capsule turns night into day during liftoff from a Cape Canaveral launch pad early Tuesday as it streaks over a model of NASA's space shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center, heading for a rendezvous with the International Space Station, opening a new era of dollar-driven spaceflight. (AP Photo/Florida Today, Craig Rubadoux) Photo: Ap/getty / SL

Last Saturday, after many meticulous preparatory stages and a couple of exasperating postponements, SpaceX was set to launch  its Falcon 9 rocket, along with its Dragon capsule filled with food, supplies and science experiments destined for the International Space Station. A faulty valve, however, signaled officials to abort the launch with just ONE second to go.

Years and years of research and preparation might have ended in a disaster, however it seems all these past precautions were for the best. Today, the Falcon 9 launched without a breeze from the launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

SpaceX’s Elon Musk tweeted, “Dragon spaceship opens the navigation pod bay door without hesitation. So much nicer than HAL9000 #DragonLaunch.”

It marks the third launch of the Falcon 9 rocket; the second launch of the Dragon capsule, the first with components needed for space station docking; and one of 12 planned SpaceX flights to the International Space Station. Definitely today signals the beginning of a new era of spaceflight, one in which private companies are herald to dominate the sub-orbital space launch scene.

The Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket lifts off from space launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., early Tuesday. This launch marks the first time, a private company sends its own rocket to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.(AP Photo/John Raoux) Photo: Ap/getty / SL

The Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket lifts off from space launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., early Tuesday. This launch marks the first time, a private company sends its own rocket to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.(AP Photo/John Raoux) Photo: Ap/getty / SL

The SpaceX launch solutions are the most affordable cost/performance when compared with its current competitors. The reusable Dragon is also significantly cheaper than European, Russian or Chinese spacecrafts. The cargo version of the Dragon is very different from the manned version expected to begin launching humans to orbit in a few years.

Besides SpaceX, expect other companies to join sub-orbit launches carrying important cargo, and even astronauts, in the near future. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, ATK (Alliant Techsystems Inc.) which plans to use its Liberty rocket to launch humans into orbit by 2015 or Planetary Resources’ daring plan of traveling to an asteroid and mining it.

Soon, free of sub-orbital launch duties, NASA will finally be able to concentrate on high-load carrying propulsion solutions which might finally bring man back on the moon and, hopefully, on Mars.

First commercial space flight set for test flight

In a landmark liftoff, the first privately owned spaceship which can carry passengers will head for a test flight beyond the atmosphere this year – and over 500 people have reserved seats already.

More and more companies are starting to look at space tourism as a reliable source of income, and another company has just secured $US5 million equity financing, which is just enough to build a two seated rocket plane which will be called Lynx. These two firms and several more are considering flying not only people into outer space, but also experiments and payloads owned by research laboratories, institutes and other companies.

“There are fascinating businesses that may come that would be tremendously exciting,” said Carissa Christensen, managing partner of the Tauri Group, which is working on a commercial space market study to be released in May. “There also are tremendous financial challenges, requiring enormous capital, and there are risks,” she said.

While at the moment this is only an option for the thrill seekers with deep pockets, analysts believe routine, reliable, and relatively cheap space flight is not that far away. Given the drastic budget cuts NASA and other space agencies have suffered lately, this kind of approach seems almost unavoidable – and many intend to profit from this niche.

“I really believe that this is the engine that’s going to finally break the logjam that has kept us wondering why more interesting things aren’t happening in space,” said Jeff Greason, president and co-founder of XCOR Aerospace, developer of the Lynx rocketplane.

Aside from people who have the means and the will to pay for their space trip, private companies are getting a big boost from NASA itself, who only last year hired seven companies to fly suborbital science experiments, including Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace. Many believe the NASA program is “going to be a big kick-start for this industry”, but others fear this will only endanger the future of space exploration. However, at the moment, it seems quite clear that steady, reliable and cheap space flight can only come from private companies.

“The way some perceive this industry is that it’s about flying rich playboys into space. That is a lie,” said Greason at XCOR Aerospace, which secured $US5 million in equity financing, enough to produce the first operational Lynx rocketplane. “We have ideas about what we do with routine and reliable access to space, with making space a research tool that’s available to engineers and scientists. But whatever our ideas are today, in 10 years they are going to look very antiquated, he said.”

Via Reuters

The giant Stratolaunch aircraft, with a wing span the size of a football field, is set to piggyback rockets for easy orbit deployment. (c) Dynetics/Stratolaunch Systems

Microsoft co-founder announces new private space flight company

The giant Stratolaunch aircraft, with a wing span the size of a football field, is set to piggyback rockets for easy orbit deployment. (c) Dynetics/Stratolaunch Systems

The giant Stratolaunch aircraft, with a wing span the size of a football field, is set to piggyback rockets for easy orbit deployment. (c) Dynetics/Stratolaunch Systems

We’re at the dawn of a new exciting era – the private space age. More and more companies and influential businessmen have hopped on the bandwagon in the past decade, with the thought of building something truly incredible, while operating a profitable business at the same time. Richard Branson launched Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk (Paypal founder) paved the way for the promising SpaceX, Jeff Bezos opened Blue Origin, and now another business magnate is set to join these highly distinguished ranks – Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder, with his newly announced Stratolaunch.

The company’s mission and objectives are extremely ambitious, to say the least. Their first project involved the building of a massive aircraft, which when completed will have the largest wingspan in the world (the size of a football field), capable of carrying manned or cargo rockets close enough for them to easily deploy in orbit. Its advanced launch system is designed such that a mid-flight booster ignites to send cargo, satellites and, eventually, people into orbit. Most likely, the aircraft will deploy SpaceX two-stage rockets, whose boosters will be released at an altitude of approximately 30,000 feet (9,100 m), before launching into space.

“Stratolaunch will build an air launch system to give us orbital access to space with greater safety, flexibility and cost effectiveness, both for cargo and manned missions.” Allen at a December 13th press conference.

The dual-bodied, 6 engine jet aircraft will be constructed by Scaled Composites, a California based aerospace design company founded by industry pioneer Burt Rutan, at which Paul Allen is the sole investor. A few specs: wing span of 385 feet (117 meters), 1.2 million pounds (more than 544,000 kilograms) in weight. It’s so large that it will require at least a 3.6 kilometer runway just to take off.

This isn’t the first time Allen has ventured into the private space industry, as he funded the construction of Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne suborbital spacecraft,  which successfully climbed to an altitude of 115,090 m in 2004. It was the first ever privately funded project to put a civilian into space. Now, with Stratolaunch, Allen intends on creating the first ever completely privately funded space company.

Building a giant aircraft which can ferry rockets, is a lot more efficient from multiple points of view. It’s more cost effective, since you don’t need to build high range rockets that directly launch into space, it cancels weather complications, and offers a substantial operational flexibility. It sounds like a brilliant business venture, but will it ever see the light of day? Well, Stratolaunch officials promise it will, since most of the design process has been completed and construction will begin soon at the Mojave Air and Space Port hangar.

“This is not a sketch,” Burt Rutan said. “It exists in hundreds of detailed drawings, and it’s relatively close to [being built] as soon as we can get a building big enough.”

“By the end of this decade, Stratolaunch will be putting spacecraft into orbit,” Allen said.

We’d love to hear and learn more about this ambitious prospect, however Stratolaunch is still in its early infancy, and like Allen stated, the first launch won’t be ready for at least a couple of years. As such, the company has no interest in sharing too much information, just enough to build some hype. Check out the company’s presentation video for its promised winged behemoth.

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An artist impression of Spaceport America, under construction in New Mexico. (c) Vyonyx Ltd

World’s first commercial spaceport is 90% complete. First sub-orbital flight by 2013.

Virgin Galactic, Virgin’s commercial space flight branch, just recently announced that the first phase in the construction of the world’s first spaceport available to civilian consumers has been completed, making the ambitious project 90% complete.

‘Spaceport America’, as it’s been dubbed, is being built on an 18,000-acre site in the desolate sand plains of New Mexico, 45 miles of Las Cruces. Its nearly two-mile long, 200-foot wide runway-or “spaceway” is already complete, while the space-age looking terminal hangar is almost ready.

The spaceport, according to Virgin officials, is just months away from being completely ready, when the second phase in its inception will be done as well. The second phase, already in motion, is comprised in the completion of the Vertical Launch Complex facility, two visitor centers in nearby towns and a further visitor center on the main spaceport site.

This will put the spaceport well on track for its 2013 goal of housing the launch of the first commercial sub-orbital flight from the site – the first in many to taxi wealthy individuals literary around the world. Virgin is already taking reservations for its two-hour flights into sub-orbital space, for a price tag of US$200,000. After being launched 10 miles into space, thrill-seekers will experience about five minutes of weightlessness and look at the curvature of the earth, among other incredible perks.

These sub-orbital flights will be made on-board Virgin Galactic’s mothership and spaceship (White Knight 2 and Space Ship 2), which are still in the test phase, so far performing wonderfully.  The whole concept is pioneering in nature, and as such the prospects for the future of this promising looking industry are very bright. Surely, commercial spaceflight will be very interesting to follow.

Boeing enters the space tourism market

Commercial space flight is starting to promise to become a very lucrative market since an ever growing interested is harnessed by the big corporations of the world. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic in cooperation with Scaled Composites (Mojave, CA), announced their sincere intentions of entering the commercial space travel market, after recently the giant Boeing also announced its plans to carry civilians in space.

Apparently, the aerospace manufacturer has reached an agreement with Space Adventures for the marketing and manufacturing of low-orbit space travel, which could see wealthy, yet ordinary civilians travel into space, as well as guarantee regular transportation for the International Space Station or other sub orbital projects, aboard the Boeing Crew Space Transportation-100 (CST-100).

The CST-100 could carry seven people and fly in low-Earth orbit as soon as 2015, Boeing said. The potential customers for excess seating capacity include private individuals, companies, non-governmental organizations, and U.S. federal agencies other than NASA.

“By combining our talents, we can better offer safe, affordable transportation to commercial spaceflight customers,” explained Brewster Shaw, vice president and general manager of Boeing’s Space Exploration division. “To date, all commercial flights for private spaceflight participants to the ISS have been contracted by Space Adventures. If NASA and the international partners continue to accommodate commercial spaceflight participants on ISS, this agreement will be in concert with the NASA administrator’s stated intent to promote space commerce in low Earth orbit.”

This could prove to be the first real step in providing the possibility for commercial space travel, even though in the beginning (first 10-20 years) this will solely be a player’s market, with fare tickets ranging in the the tens of millions. The first space tourist was Dennis A. Tito, a California multimillionaire, who shelved $20 million for a ride and spent eight days in the International Space Station with two cosmonauts in 2001. Guy Laliberte, founder of Canada’s Cirque du Soleil, paid more than $35 million to travel into space last year on a Russian spaceship from Kazakhstan.

“We are excited about the potential to offer flights on Boeing’s spacecraft,” emphasized Eric Anderson, co-founder and chairman of Space Adventures. “With our customer experience and Boeing’s heritage in human spaceflight, our goal is not only to benefit the individuals who fly to space, but also to help make the resources of space available to the commercial sector by bringing the value from space back to Earth.”

What’s interesting is that Boeing’s new jump into the commercial space flight market comes a few months after President Obama‘s decision to retire the Space Shuttle program and shelve lunar missions for the next couple of years, until N.A.S.A. will get completely restructured. Until then N.A.S.A. will be completely dependent on commercial space taxis for ISS cargo transpiration and on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for astronaut missions. The Russian space agency charges the US $51 million per seat for a ride on a Soyuz, a price tag that is said to reach $56 million by 2013.

UPDATE: Three years since this post was published, a lot has changed in the private space sector. For one, SpaceX, currently the most successful private aerospace enterprise has successfully deployed its own spacecraft to the International Space Station, and the aforementioned Dennis Tito is actually planning one of the most dashing plans yet – a manned mission to mars by 2018.  The space shuttle is long dead and gone, alas.