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updated 10/27/2008 6:56:32 PM ET 2008-10-27T22:56:32

The development of commercial suborbital space vehicles should lead eventually to businesses such as commercial hypersonic point-to-point air travel and low-cost launches to low Earth orbit, according to spaceship builders, venture capitalists and other entrepreneurs who gathered here October 22-23 to take part in the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight.

The key to making those businesses profitable will be achieving safe, affordable and reliable access to space, Jeff Greason, president of XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif., said at the conference, which was hosted by the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium. The private suborbital flight enterprise "builds up the infrastructure we need to go do the bigger and better things," he added.

Space for decades has been so expensive, so unreliable, so unsafe, making it extremely difficult to do any reliable planning, Greason suggested. "And we've known for decades and decades and decades that the solution is you have to have vehicles that can get you up and down into space with, perhaps not with the reliability of current airplanes, but maybe more like the reliability of high-performance military aircraft."

The suborbital market is critical, Greason continued, because it will whet the appetite for competitive vehicles "to get bigger, better, higher and faster," which will lead to orbital spacecraft.

"The only way we're going to figure out how to do this stuff is to do it," Greason said. XCOR has started building a two-seat suborbital spaceship — dubbed Lynx — that will carry people or payloads.

Regarding the ability of start-up space organizations that can be fleet-of-foot, contrasted to the sluggish and bureaucratic nature of traditional aerospace companies, Greason said: "I see in a few people I know in the larger companies a dawning recognition that, maybe instead of the dinosaurs buying the mammals and stomping on them, they should work with them. We can conquer whole new territories together."

Hypersonic point-to-point
Kevin Bowcutt, chief scientist of hypersonics for the Boeing Company, took a longer view at affordable, routine and rapid point-to-point travel. "It's a quantum jump from Mach 3 suborbital flight ... to getting a third of the way around the world," he said. Work now is under way on suborbital vehicles that will help validate markets, Bowcutt noted, and also get money and technology flowing to enable viable hypersonic vehicles in the future.

Bowcutt spotlighted a number of hypersonic vehicle projects, including Boeing's technical participation in the Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation program — a collaborative project involving Boeing, several Australian entities, as well as the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Constructing an ocean-hopping hypersonic craft is going to require an international effort, Bowcutt said. "There is no real easy shortcut. It's about 10 years and maybe $10 billion [as an initial research and development effort]. ... There is no one country ... there's no one company ... that can take on the risk and the cost of developing a hypersonic point-to-point vehicle or an orbital system. So we're going to have to share this cost ... share the risk," Bowcutt said, but doing so also would increase the market, he added.

"To get long distances quickly and avoid sonic boom and heating issues - some of that trajectory has to be suborbital and now you're pushing up to Mach 10 and above. There's just no way to get around that from a physics point-of-view," Bowcutt said.

Changing space domain
Peter Wegner, director of the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., is keeping an eye on the emergence of private suborbital vehicles.

At the same time the U.S. Department of Defense's reliance on space capabilities is growing, the space domain is changing, he added, noting that more than 40 countries are developing active space programs that involve design, launch and operating spacecraft.

"Space protection and robust space capabilities are becoming more and more important," Wegner said. The ORS effort is aimed at reconstituting lost space capabilities or augmenting existing capabilities in the event of a crisis to meet tactical needs.

The ORS Office is taking on the challenge of meeting the critical needs of a Joint Force Commander in only a matter of days, Wegner said. One of the approaches will be the development of cubesat technologies — ultrasmall, low-cost, low-weight spacecraft innovations that are common to the personal laptop computer industry, he emphasized.

Wegner told Space News that emerging suborbital tourist systems offer "great potential" to his ORS efforts.

As example, the WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane, designed to tote to drop altitude the SpaceShipTwo suborbital passenger-carrying craft, could be used - sans SpaceShipTwo - as a flying launch pad for lofting rapid response satellites, Wegner noted.

"The trick is how do we take that space and put on a usable payload and then a rocket motor that will accelerate [that payload] to orbital velocity," Wegner said. "I think we'll get there ... but we're not there at the moment. As these systems mature and develop, I'm keeping a very close eye on what they are doing. It's sort of one of these things where we are kind of on parallel paths, but we haven't collided yet."

WhiteKnightTwo — first flight
Meanwhile, work is progressing on the first flight of Scaled Composites' WhiteKnightTwo airplane at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif.

According to Michael Blum, founder and managing director of Hong Kong-based Repulse Bay Capital Ltd., the megaplane is being readied for its maiden takeoff.

Blum is a ticket-holder for a future suborbital trek. He recently received an update on upcoming tests of the WhiteKnightTwo-SpaceShipTwo system from Virgin Galactic — the spaceliner operation bankrolled by lofty minded U.K. billionaire, Richard Branson.

Blum said that extensive ground testing of WhiteKnightTwo equipment has been carried out in Mojave, evaluations that have culminated in a recent high-speed taxi run. The first flight of the aircraft is anticipated in two to three weeks, he said.

Present projections point to the first voyage of SpaceShipTwo taking place at the end of 2009, Blum said, with a minimum of 30 flights prior to a decision that the WhiteKnightTwo-SpaceShipTwo system is ready to begin commercial operations.

"We all want to go as soon as possible. But at the same time, I'm a strong advocate among the ticket-holders of letting Scaled and Virgin do their job properly. We need a safe and reliable system," Blum told conference attendees.

"We need to commercialize space operations and human spaceflight. It's extremely important for Virgin Galactic to end up being a successful venture. It would be catastrophic if the system were to be put into service too early ... and it would probably put suborbital spaceflight on the back burner for the next couple of decades. We can't afford that," Blum said.

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