Image: White Knight cockpit
Scaled Composites
A front-and-center view shows the White Knight carrier plane that was developed for SpaceShipOne operations. Now Scaled Composites is working on a fleet of commercial "SpaceShipTwos."
By Senior space writer
updated 4/26/2005 8:25:14 PM ET 2005-04-27T00:25:14

Ticket-to-ride commuter flights to the edge of space may not be too far off — with spaceliners departing several spaceports here in the United States.

New facts regarding the emerging personal space travel business were presented last week before the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics in Washington.

Testifying before lawmakers and making the technical and business case for public space travel were Burt Rutan, chief of Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif., joined by Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic — a space tourism venture that is a subsidiary of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.

Last year, the privately financed SpaceShipOne rocket plane took on three suborbital spaceflights, snagging the Ansari X Prize in the process. That $10 million purse was put in play to spur both suborbital and orbital public space transportation. SpaceShipOne was designed and built by Scaled Composites.

Also in 2004, a deal was struck between Mojave Aerospace Ventures, a joint venture formed by Rutan and billionaire Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, and the Virgin Group. For their part, Virgin has created a new subsidiary, Virgin Galactic, which has plans to contract Scaled Composites to build a fleet of suborbital vehicles based on the SpaceShipOne, but able to haul up to five passengers high above Earth.

The negotiations between the groups last year resulted in a $21.5 million deal for the use of SpaceShipOne technology. In addition, a $100 million investment plan was developed to build up to five SpaceShipTwo vehicles at Rutan’s Scaled Composites factory in Mojave.

The plan for the ships themselves is being developed by Rutan to a specification created by Virgin Galactic, Whitehorn testified.

Second site: Florida, Texas or New Mexico?
In his written testimony, Whitehorn told Congress that his company’s current plan is to begin suborbital operations in Mojave, and then develop a second site in another location, possibly Florida, Texas or New Mexico.

In terms of first flight, the Virgin Galactic chief said that service could start in either 2008 or 2009.

"Let me be clear, this is an estimate only," Whitehorn testified, noting that "safety is our North Star and it will determine our launch date."  Commercial suborbital jaunts would start as soon as safety assessments and training dictate that the firm could do so, "and not a day before," he said.

Virgin Galactic has a memorandum of understanding with Scaled Composites to customize the SpaceShipOne design for commercial use. Design work to that end continues. However, Whitehorn’s firm has not yet formally ordered the spacecraft.

As far as making money on the venture, Whitehorn reported that their business plan projects profitability in the fourth or fifth year of operation. This estimate assumes five spaceships, two launch aircraft or motherships, and two launch bases in the United States. "If the schedule for deploying any of these assets slips, it would negatively impact our target date for profitability," he explained.

Pay-as-you-go astronauts
For their $200,000, Virgin Galactic customers are promised a two-hour trip on the "spaceliner." Half of the voyage, Whitehorn reported, will involve climbing to a safe altitude with the mothership. Pay-as-you-go astronauts would then spend an hour on SpaceShipTwo as it rockets to over three times the speed of sound, climbs to well in excess of 62 miles (100 kilometer) altitude, then returns to Earth.

That suborbital height is officially recognized as entering space. But Whitehorn also identified a future goal of Virgin Galactic.

"Our long-term goal is to develop commercial space tourism into an orbital business which could in the future carry payloads as well as people into orbit," Whitehorn stated.

Aerospace designer, Burt Rutan, also explained last week that the markets for a future personal spaceflight industry — meaning access to flight above the atmosphere by the public — will likely take on two basic forms, or scenarios.

  • Commercial companies that develop lower-cost versions of the classic government booster and spacecraft concepts. These firms then conduct commercial flights in 4 to 6 years that are funded by passenger ticket sales. Perhaps 50 to 100 astronauts would be flown the first year, with the rate topping out at maybe 300 to 500 per year.
  • The second scenario involves players that do not find the dangers of spaceflight acceptable. It is recognized that extensive improvements in safety are more important than extensive improvements in affordability. These players are faced with a much greater technical challenge and the need for new innovations and breakthroughs. If successful, however, a far greater market can be realized, starting out at 500 astronauts the first year, increasing to about 3,000 astronauts per year, headed toward 50,000 to 100,000 astronauts by the 12th year of operations.

Rutan said that his plans do not involve a "scenario one" approach.

"We believe a proper goal for safety is the record that was achieved during the first five years of commercial scheduled airline service, which, while exposing the passengers to high risks by today’s standards, was more than 100 times as safe as government manned spaceflight," Rutan explained in his written testimony.

More than a joyride
Rutan remarked that he’s aware suborbital tourism has been criticized by some as "joyriding for billionaires" and that such flights are just about having fun.

"I’m not at all embarrassed that we’re opening up a new industry that will likely be a multibillion-dollar industry that’s focused only on fun," Rutan told lawmakers. He expects — like the first personal computers that were used just for game playing — that having fun by traveling into space will bloom in a decade’s time into uses that are "long-lasting and significant for our nation."

Interim spaceport
In a related development, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced earlier this month that Oct. 4-9 will be celebrated as X Prize Cup Week. White Sands Missile Range will be the interim spaceport until a Southwest Regional Spaceport in Upham, near Las Cruces, is opened in 2007 or 2008.

The news that Virgin Galactic envisions use of several takeoff points for propelling patrons toward space is welcome news to Peter Diamandis, chairman and founder of the X Prize Foundation, based in St. Louis.

"Our hope is that the X Prize Cup activities will help bring suborbital tourism operators to the southern New Mexico site for year-round passenger launch operations," said Diamandis. He told Space.com via e-mail that the drivers to encourage this prospect are very clear.

First, New Mexico is setting up, and paying for, customized facilities specifically designed to support this class of vehicle. Secondly, the X Prize Foundation and the state are jointly planning to assist companies in getting the required licenses and approvals. Lastly, Diamandis continued, the state is offering economic incentives to attract these operators to the southern New Mexico facilities.

"Clearly there is room for a number of locations for suborbital personal spaceflight. If all goes well, this will be a rising tide that lifts many spaceports, and for the first time enables a true commercial market," Diamandis explained.

Diamandis explained that this coming fall they plan to have a number of the key X Prize teams demonstrate various aspects of their hardware. "This will include engine tests, low-altitude flights and drop tests. In the future our intent is to put up multimillion-dollar prizes to incentivize continued breakthroughs in suborbital operations," he said.

Prizes might be tied to such areas as maximum altitude, cross-range, turnaround time and time-to-climb, Diamandis added.

"We are very proud of our partnership with New Mexico, Las Cruces and Governor Richardson," Diamandis said. "We’re working to make the X Prize Cup an exciting annual event that will move the industry forward at the same time that it allows the public to personally participate in the future of the personal spaceflight revolution."

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