The Future of Commercial Spaceflight and Space Tourism

Fair Warning – The following blog post is a bad idea…

Why is it a bad idea? because in it im going to make predictions about the future, and this is almost always a bad idea. So, why am I committing myself to such a fool hardy task?

Well that’s simple, I’m doing it because I’m impatient. I’ve had enough of waiting for my chance to get in to space and so I’ve decided to do some snooping around to see if I cant figure out how long it’s going to be before I can blast myself off the planet. To be more specific, what I want to find out is how long it’s going to be before someone like me, an average Joe, can afford to take make the trip.

Before I start making my predictions, those of you that haven’t already done so, may find it useful to take a look at my earlier post The Story So Far.

So without further ado may I present to you…. The future (or at least a version of it that we can all look back at from the actual future and have a bloody good laugh about).

2011 – 2016 (The next five years)

Spaceport America is completed.

 

More accurately I should say that the latest phase of construction will be complete. The worlds first commercial spaceport has been under construction since 2006 when the first temporary launch structures were built. This latest phase of development will see the construction of a runway, a terminal hanger facility and an air fire rescue facility.

The spaceport will provide launch facilities for the commercial sector and will become the word headquarters for Virgin Galactic. The Spaceport has already passed a number of important milestones including receiving its launch license and the opening of its first runway. At the moment there is no concrete date for the completion of the current phase of construction, but given the current progress on the site and the significant progress being made with the development and testing of Virgin Galactics Spaceship Tw0, it seems likely that construction will be complete by the end of 2011. You can read more about the progress being made on the Spaceport at the Spaceport America website.

Virgin Galactic makes its first suborbital flights.

Spaceship Two

So far Virgin Galactic has remained tight lipped regarding the likely date for its first commercial flights, and with good reason. Spaceflight can be dangerous and Virgin Galactic needs to be able to give its customers confidence that they will make it down in one piece, which is why the former President of the company Will Whitehorn, announced that the commencement of commercial flights would be based on a “safety-driven schedule.” At the time of making that statement (2009) the best estimates for the start of commercial flights was two years.

So, how far away are Virgin from taking their first paying passengers in to space? Well to get some sort of indication we can take a look at Spaceship Two’s predecessor Spaceship One. From its first captive carry test flight to its first spaceflight took the team approximately 17 months to complete, as Spaceship Two began its first captive carry flights in March 2010, its reasonable to assume that the first commercial flights could be under way by the end of 2011.

However its worth remembering that unlike its predecessor Spaceship Two will be carrying more that just a test pilot and some ballast in to space. In order to operate as a commercial spaceliner Virgin Galactic must first obtain a Commercial Launch License and the rigorous qualification process involved in obtaining this license could well add months on to the testing phase.

Beyond the initial flight of Spaceship Two (which will Carry Sir Richard Branson and his family in to space), it is likely that Virgin Galactic will enter a period of regular spaceflights from Spaceport America, this will then be followed by the first flights from Spaceport Sweden which is to be the European base of operations for Virgin Galactic.

The Dragon Capsule Docks to the International Space Station

Space X Dragon Capsules and the Falcon 9

Space X recently made history by becoming the first commercial company to retrieve a vehicle from Orbit. That vehicle was the Dragon Space Capsule. The initial plan for Dragon is for it to complete a number of qualification flights before making its first resupply trips to the International Space Station (ISS). No firm dates have been set for the first resupply flights but according to Space X’s website they are slated to start in 2011.

While the first flights to the ISS will be for resupply purposes only, Dragon can also be reconfigured to carry a crew instead of cargo. So if all goes to plan Space X may well be using its Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule as a taxi service to and from the ISS.

Space X has also reserved a number of flights over the next few years for commercial entities. This includes a reservation in 2014 for Bigelow Aerospace. No announcement has been made yet as to what that payload might be, however…

Bigelow Aerospace Launches the First Commercial Inflatable Space Station

Bigelow Aerospace Inflatable Spacestation Design

Bigelow Aerospace has been working hard to develop a range of inflatable space habitats, and has recently been in talks with NASA about potentially providing a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) for the ISS. No agreements have yet been made but, assuming that NASA and Bigelow agree to work together we could see an inflatable segment added to the International Space Station in the next two years. The BEAM modules primary purpose would be to act as a demonstration of the technology that Bigelow has been developing and provide real flight data on the performance of the module. Its secondary purpose would most likely be to provide the space station with much-needed storage and logistics space.

The BEAM module is likely to be a scaled up version of its two Genesis modules which have already completed successful testing operations in orbit. If BEAM proves to be equally successful Bigelow’s next move may well be to launch a full-scale version of the module known as Sundancer.

The Sundancer module would have roughly 20% of the pressurised volume that is currently available on board the International Space Station. The launch of the Sundancer would represent the first stage in the construction of Bigelow’s very own private space station that would be available for lease to anyone.

Bigelow has suggested that the launch of the first Sundancer Module might happen in 2014, which ties in with the launch reserved with Space X for the same year. Further launches between 2014 and 2015, would increase the size of the space station by adding further Sundancer Modules as well as an even larger BA-330 module.

Bigelow may well be pursuing a rather ambitious timeline if they want to launch Sundancer by 2014, but they already have two successful test modules in orbit, agreements with 7 sovereign nations to utilise the orbital facilities of the commercial Spacestation, a possible agreement to provide a module to the ISS and they are currently expanding the size of the their factory outside Las Vegas to twice its current size. While getting Sundancer in to Orbit for 2014 may be ambitious, I would say that Bigelow is on the right track to deliver.

5 – 10 years from now (now being 2011)

  • Virgin Galactic now operates from numerous countries and provides point to point Spaceflights with Spaceship Three. Trips from London to Sydney can now be completed in just two hours, however the cost of such trips is still hugely expensive.
  • Space X begins crewed flights to the International and the Commercial Spacestations. The developement of their heavy lift vehicle means that flights outside of low earth orbit can now be achieved.
  • Bigelow Aerospace has multiple Commercial Spacestions in operation and announces plans to place a station in orbit around the moon.
  • Armadillo Aerospace and Space Adventures provide their first orbital trips to paying passengers. While early flights provide customers with short duration trips, later flights will include destinations such as the Bigelow’s Orbital Space Stations.
  • The first privately built landers make it to the moon. This one might even  happen in the next five years. The Google Lunar X prize currently has 29 teams competing to win a $30 million prize for being the first team to successfully land a robot on the moon that is capable of traveling 500 meters and send back high-definition images.

10 – 25 years from now

  • There are now multiple companies offering suborbital and orbital flights. The trips are still hugely expensive, but the cost has now come down enough to make it possible for point to point suborbital Space liners such as Virgin Galactic to turn a healthy profit and expand their operations to more countries. However orbital flights or stays aboard one of the 10 commercial Space Stations operated by Bigelow are still only affordable to the super rich, government entities and private companies.
  • There is now a Commercial Spacestation orbiting the moon. Trips to the station can only be afforded by the super rich and it is manned on a semi permanent basis. Bigelow has revealed plans to place a habitat on the lunar surface and is looking in to the possibility of putting a station in orbit around Mars.

And there you have it, the future of manned commercial spaceflight, or at least one possible future.

Some of you might think that I’ve been overly optimistic in my summary of what will come to pass, and this may well turn out to be the case. But when I think back to what inspired me most of all when I was a kid, I cant help but think of all the space books and documentaries that I read, that predicted that we would be living on the moon and eating meals in the form of pills by 1994.

So what do you think? Am I being way to optimistic with my predictions, or am I completely underselling the potential for the commercial sector to get us all living on the moon? Please leave some thoughts in the comments section below…

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2 Responses to The Future of Commercial Spaceflight and Space Tourism

  1. Pingback: Yuri’s Night 2011 | meflyrocket

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