While NASA frets over a looming hiatus in its ability to launch people into space, a commercial company is poised to unveil the first spaceship for private passenger travel.
The formal presentation of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo is scheduled for Monday afternoon in California's Mojave Desert, the home base of legendary designer Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites.
"Suborbital flights is the area where commercial human spaceflight will start," said Bretton Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation trade association.
Customers buying tickets to ride on SpaceShipTwo will be hauled up in the spaceship on a carrier craft and released. At that point the spaceship's rocket engines will ignite to propel the crew 65 miles high, from which vantage point, passengers will be able to see the curvature of the Earth against the backdrop of space.
The microgravity environment will last for about six minutes, during which time passengers will be able to unbuckle their seat belts and float around the cabin. The entire flight, from takeoff to landing, is expected to last about 2.5 hours. The price? A cool $200,000.
Modeled after 2004 spaceship
The ship is modeled after a Rutan-built prototype named SpaceShipOne, which made three flights into suborbital space in 2004 to clinch a $10 million prize for the first — and so far only — private piloted spaceflights. Virgin chief Richard Branson hired Rutan upon the successful conclusion of the Ansari X Prize competition to build a fleet of spaceships to take paying passengers beyond Earth's atmosphere.
The debut of the private spaceship comes as NASA prepares to retire its three space shuttles. The agency has been working on a replacement capsule-style spaceship that can travel to the moon and other destinations in the solar system, in addition to reaching the International Space Station, which orbits 220 miles above Earth.
The new Orion capsules, however, are not expected to become operational until 2015 at the earliest. An advisory team appointed by President Obama to review the program came up with alternatives for the United States' human space program, including turning over astronaut transport to the space station to private industry.
It's a big leap from suborbital to orbital space, but that has not been a deterrent for several firms, including Space Exploration Technologies, backed by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, and Blue Origins, a project of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. NASA is expected to announce as early as next week the winner or winners of a $50 million commercial human spaceflight study grant.
So far, 300 takers
Virgin has no immediate plans to move into orbital travel. The company says about 300 people have put down deposits totaling $40 million for rides on SpaceShipTwo.
Test flights of the new ship are scheduled to being next year. Passenger travel will follow in 2011 or 2012.
Paramont to the success of the venture is safety.
"We in the industry bear the burden of being as safe as we can reasonably achieve so that the industry is not unfairly tagged with a reputation of recklessness," said Jeff Greason, co-founder and chief executive of XCOR Aerospace, which is developing a suborbital spaceship called Lynx.
"The important thing is by the time these craft enter into service, they have worked out as many possible issues during design and flight testing so that they can fly with a reasonable level of safety," Greason said.