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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The Story So Far

So where are we now and how did we get here?

The commercial space flight industry and Space tourism have a several precursors, but for me this all kicked off in 1996 when Dr. Peter Diamandis first announced the X Prize (later renamed the Ansari X Prize) in a bid to kick-start the commercial space flight industry.

The concept behind the Ansari X Prize was simple, offer a $10m cash purse for the first team to privately build and launch a reuseable vehicle in to space twice in a two-week period. Twenty severn teams from around the world entered the competition which was eventually won in October 2004 by Scaled Composites.

A number of important developments have taken place since the Ansari X Prize was launched, each one taking you and I a little bit closer to our own ride in to space. I’ve put together the following time line of events to give you a feel for how far we have come and to give you a taste for what might be around the corner.

1996

  • 01/05/1996 The Ansari X Prize is launched, offering $10 Million to the first team to privately build and launch a reusable vehicle in to space twice within two weeks.

1998

  • 01/01/1998 Eric C. Anderson Founds Space Adventures. The company aims to provide paying customers space related trips, including trips to space.

2001

  • 28/04/2001 Dennis Tito reportedly pays Space Adventures $20 million and becomes the first space tourist , he travels to the international space station and spends a total of 9 days in space.

2002

  • 25/04/2002 Mark Shuttleworth becomes the second space tourist and spends 11 days in space.
  • 01/06/02 Paypal Co-founder Elon Musk founds Space X a Private space transportation company.

2004

  • 06/05/2004 The X Prize is renamed the Ansari X Prize following a multi-million dollar donation from entrepreneurs Anousheh Ansari and Amir Ansari.
  • 16/06/2004 Mojave Airport Becomes the first private inland airport in the USA to receive a spaceflight license and is formally renamed Mojave Air and Space Port.
  • 27/09/2004 Virgin Galactic is founded. Richard Bransons latest venture aims to provide private suborbital flights into space.
  • 29/09/2004 In the first of two qualifying flights to win the Ansari X Prize, Michael Melville becomes the worlds first commercial astronaut as he pilots Scaled Composites’ Spaceship one to a hight of 102.9km.
  • 04/10/2004 Brian Binnie clenches the X Prize for the Scaled Composites by piloting Spaceship One to a hight of 112 km on its second and final qualifying flight.

2005

  • 01/01/2005 NASA solicits commercial rocket companies to submit proposals for resupply of the ISS following the retirement of the shuttle (C.O.T.S Program).
  • 27/05/2005Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites join Forces and found The Spaceship Company. The company is to build a fleet of space craft based on the design of Spaceship One.
  • 10/08/2005 Space Adventures announces plans to offer flights around the moon.
  • 01/10/2005 Gregory Oslen becomes the 3rd space tourist, spending 11 days in space.

2006

  • 01/03/2006 Sapce X submit the Dragon Capsule to NASA as a candidate for the C.O.T.S. program.
  • 24/03/2006 The first attempt by Space X to launch Falcon 1, its own privately built rocket, ends in failure.
  • 04/04/2006 construction of Spaceport America begins. The space port is to be the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport and world headquarters to Virgin Galactic.
  • 04/04/2006 Bigelow Aerospace launches an experimental, Inflatable space habitat, Genesis 1 into Orbit. The companies aim is to provide space destinations for paying customers. Those destinations can range from orbiting hotels to orbiting laboratories.
  • 21/07/2006 Space Adventures announces that it will be offering the opportunity of a space walk to future clients.
  • 18/08/2206 NASA announces that Space X has won a Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract to demonstrate cargo delivery to the International Space Station.
  • 18/09/2006 Anousheh Ansari becomes the 1st female space tourist and the 4th person to pay for a trip in to space.

2007

  • 01/02/2007 Officials from Virgin and NASA signed a memorandum of understanding to explore the potential for collaboration.
  • 21/03/2007 The second attempt by Space X to launch Falcon 1 in to space fails.
  • 07/04/2207 Charles Simonyi becomes the 5th space tourist on the first of 2 trips to the ISS, He spends 15 days on orbit.
  • 28/06/2207 Bigelow Aerospace launches its second Inflatable Habitat, Genesis 2 in to Orbit.
  • 13/09/2007 The Google Lunar X Prize is announced the competition offers a total of US$30 million in prizes to the first privately funded teams to land a robot on the Moon that successfully travels more than 500 metres (1,640 ft) and transmits back high-definition images and video.

2008

  • 01/01/2008 Space Adventures acquires the Zero Gravity Corporation which is the first and only FAA-approved provider of weightless flights to the general public.
  • 03/04/2008 Virgin Galactic announces it will operate from European launch sites.
  • 03/08/2008 The third attempt by Space X to launch the Falcon 1 also fails.
  • 28/09/2008 The fourth attempt by Space X to launch the Falcon 1 is a success and the spacecraft achieve orbit.
  • 12/10/2008 Richard Garriott becomes the 6th space tourist and spends 12 days in space, and as the son of Astronaut Owen Garriott he becomes the 1st second generation Astronaut.
  • 25/10/2008 Armadillo Aerospace Wins top prize at Lunar Lander Challenge 2008.
  • 23/12/2008 NASA awards a cargo delivery contract to Space X.

2009

  • 26/03/2009 Charles Simonyi becomes the first space tourist to return to space, his second trip lasts 14 days giving him a total of 29 days in space.
  • 14/07/2009 The fith launch attempt made by Space X of the Falcon 1 is another success.
  • 12/09/2009 Armadillo Areospace Wins Second prize at Lunar Lander Challenge 2009.
  • 30/09/2009 Guy Laliberté becomes the 7th Space tourist and spends 12 days in space.
  • 07/12/2009 The Spaceship Company reveals Spaceship 2 for the first time.

2010

  • 01/03/2010 Spaceship Two flys with mother ship (White Knight 2) for the first time.
  • 29/04/2010 Space Adventures announces an exclusive deal with Armadillo Aerospace.
  • 04/06/2010 Space X Launches the Falcon 9 on its first Qualification flight. The launch is a success and the vehicle achieved orbit.
  • 01/10/2010 Spaceport America opens its first runway.
  • 08/12/2010 Space X launch the Dragon Capsule on top of the Falcon 9 as a demonstration flight for the NASA C.O.T.S program.

2011

  • 01/01/2011 Bigelow Aerospace enters discussion with NASA to provide a storage module for the ISS.
  • 01/02/2011 Bigelow Aerospace announces that it has agreements with 7 nations to allow them to utilize on-orbit facilities of the commercial space station.
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And So The Great Journey Begins…

So what is the Me Fly Rocket blog all about. Well that’s simple:

Ever since I was a kid I’ve dreamed of being an astronaut, but as I’m pretty much made of “The Wrong Stuff”, I’ve never quite managed to turn the dream in to a reality, but all of that could be about to change.

The recent emergency of the commercial space industry has given new hope to millions of would-be astronauts like myself, and as companies such as Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace begin to stretch their fledgling space wings, the Me Fly Rocket blog will be there to document their extraordinary journey.

So – where do we begin? Well there have been loads of developments over the last few years and exciting times seem to be just around the corner, so over the next few posts I will be bringing us all up to speed on what we have achieved so far and what is coming next… and trust me…

You wont believe how far we have come…

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