First space tourist flights could come in 2019

Gulf Times - - AMERICAS - By Ivan Couronne, AFP

The two com­pa­nies lead­ing the pack in the pur­suit of space tourism say they are just months away from their first out-of-this-world pas­sen­ger flights – though nei­ther has set a firm date.

Vir­gin Galactic, founded by Bri­tish bil­lion­aire Richard Bran­son, and Blue Ori­gin, by Ama­zon cre­ator Jeff Be­zos, are rac­ing to be the first to fin­ish their tests – with both com­pa­nies us­ing rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent tech­nol­ogy.

Nei­ther Vir­gin nor Blue Ori­gin’s pas­sen­gers will find them­selves or­bit­ing the Earth: in­stead, their weight­less ex­pe­ri­ence will last just min­utes.

It’s an of­fer­ing far dif­fer­ent from the first space tourists, who paid tens of mil­lions of dol­lars to travel to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion (ISS) in the 2000s.

Hav­ing paid for a much cheaper ticket – cost­ing $250,000 with Vir­gin, as yet un­known with Blue Ori­gin – the new round of space tourists will be pro­pelled dozens of miles into the at­mos­phere, be­fore com­ing back down to Earth.

By com­par­i­son, the ISS is in or­bit 250 miles (400km) above our planet.

The goal is to ap­proach or pass through the imag­i­nary line mark­ing where space be­gins – ei­ther the Kar­man line, at 100km or 62 miles, or the 50mile bound­ary recog­nised by the US Air Force.

At this al­ti­tude, the sky looks dark and the cur­va­ture of the earth can be seen clearly.

With Vir­gin Galactic, six pas­sen­gers and two pi­lots are boarded onto SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, which re­sem­bles a pri­vate jet.

The VSS Unity will be at­tached to a car­rier space­craft – the WhiteKnightTwo – from which it will then de­tach at around 49,000’ (15,000m).

Once re­leased, the space­ship will fire up its rocket, and head for the sky.

Then, the pas­sen­gers will float in zero-grav­ity for sev­eral min­utes, be­fore com­ing back to Earth.

The de­scent is slowed down by a “feath­er­ing” sys­tem that sees the space­craft’s tail pivot, as if arch­ing, be­fore re­turn­ing to nor­mal and glid­ing to land at Vir­gin’s “space­port” in the New Mex­ico desert.

In to­tal, the mis­sion lasts be­tween 90 min­utes and two hours.

Dur­ing a May 29 test in Cal­i­for­nia’s Mo­jave desert, the space­ship reached an al­ti­tude of 21 miles, head­ing for space.

In Oc­to­ber 2014, the Vir­gin space­ship broke down in flight due to a pilot­ing er­ror, killing one of two pi­lots on board.

The tests later re­sumed with a new craft.

The com­pany has now also reached a deal to open a sec­ond “space­port” at Italy’s Tar­enteGrot­taglie air­port, in the south of the coun­try.

Bran­son in May told BBC Ra­dio 4 that he hoped to him­self be one of the first pas­sen­gers in the next 12 months.

About 650 peo­ple make up the rest of the wait­ing list, Vir­gin told AFP.

Blue Ori­gin, mean­while, has de­vel­oped a sys­tem closer to the tra­di­tional rocket: the New Shep­ard.

On this jour­ney, six pas­sen­gers take their place in a “cap­sule” fixed to the top of a 60’long rocket.

Af­ter launch­ing, it de­taches and con­tin­ues its tra­jec­tory sev­eral miles to­ward the sky.

Dur­ing an April 29 test, the cap­sule made it 66 miles.

Af­ter a few min­utes of weight­less­ness, dur­ing which pas­sen­gers can take in the view through large win­dows, the cap­sule grad­u­ally falls back to earth with three large para­chutes and retro­rock­ets used to slow the space­craft.

From take-off to land­ing, the flight took 10 min­utes dur­ing the lat­est test.

Un­til now, tests have only been car­ried out us­ing dum­mies at Blue Ori­gin’s West Texas site.

Com­pany of­fi­cials were re­cently quoted as say­ing the first tests with Blue Ori­gin as­tro­nauts would take place “at the end of this year”, with tick­ets for the pub­lic ex­pected to go on sale in 2019.

How­ever, in com­ments to AFP yes­ter­day, the com­pany struck a more cau­tious note.

“We have not set ticket pric­ing and have had no se­ri­ous dis­cus­sions in­side of Blue on the topic,” the firm said. “We have a flight test sched­ule and sched­ules of those types al­ways have un­cer­tain­ties and con­tin­gen­cies. Any­one pre­dict­ing dates is guess­ing.”

SpaceX and Boe­ing are de­vel­op­ing their own cap­sules to trans­port Na­tional Aero­nau­tics and Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion (Nasa) as­tro­nauts, most likely in 2020, af­ter de­lays – a sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment that the com­pa­nies will likely make up for by of­fer­ing pri­vate pas­sen­ger flights.

“If you’re look­ing to go to space, you’ll have quadru­ple the menu of op­tions that you ever had be­fore,” Phil Lar­son, as­sis­tant dean at the Univer­sity of Colorado, Boul­der’s Col­lege of En­gi­neer­ing and Ap­plied Sci­ence, told AFP.

Longer term, the Rus­sian firm that man­u­fac­tures Soyuz rock­ets is study­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of tak­ing tourists back to the ISS.

And a US start-up called Orion Span an­nounced ear­lier this year it hopes to place a lux­ury space ho­tel into or­bit within a few years – but the project is still in its early stages.

Be­low: Vir­gin Galactic’s Vir­gin space­ship (VSS) Unity.

Left: Blue Ori­gin’s New Shep­ard lifts off dur­ing a test in Van Horn, Texas.

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