The retirement of the Shuttle, whilst leaving the USA without any means with which to deliver humans or cargo to the International Space Station, was necessary to bring about the next evolution in the space industry. In the lead up to its retirement many entrepreneurs saw this as an opportunity to crack into a market that was once only for government superpowers and the contractors that serviced them. Today the private space industry can count dozens of companies vying for a piece of the final frontier and the coming decade is looking ever more bright for those of us who have aspirations that reach past the comforts of our home world.
It seems to be a common thread amongst many entrepreneurs that whilst they may have made their fortunes here on terra firma their eyes were always gazing heavenward. Just off the top of my head I can name Elon Musk (SpaceX, made his fortunes through PayPal), Robert Bigelow (Bigelow Aerospace, chain hotel giant) and now we can also count Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) amongst their ranks as he’s founded a new space company called Stratolaunch:
Stratolaunch Systems will bring airport-like operations to the launch of commercial and government payloads and, eventually, human
missions. Plans call for a first flight within five years. The air-launch-to-orbit system will mean lower costs, greater safety, and more
flexibility and responsiveness than is possible today with ground-based systems. Stratolaunch’s quick turnaround between launches
will enable new orbital missions as well as break the logjam of missions queued up for launch facilities and a chance at space.
Stratolaunch isn’t like your traditional private space company who’s out to develop their own launch system in order to bring costs down. No, instead they’re more of a systems integrator combining technology from (in my opinion) all the right places. Their booster will be made by SpaceX, their carrier plane will be made by Scaled Composites (of SpaceShipOne fame) and the systems integration will be done Dynetics. It’s a very Microsofty way of doing things and all of the companies they’ve selected have a good history of delivering on the capabilities they set out to achieve, so this is definitely a recipe for success.
Their launch system is intriguing as well and not just because its another iconic Rutan design. Just like SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightOne the Stratolaunch system is made up of a carrier craft and a rocket with the payload attached. Now long time readers will know that whilst air launched rockets are a good way to get into sub-orbital trajectories the rule of 6 (Mach 6 and 60,000 feet is 6% of the required energy to get to orbit) means that they’re not terribly effective for larger payloads. However the scale of the Stratolaunch system is quite phenomenal and is beyond anything that’s been attempted with this kind of system previously.
For starters the carrier craft will be the largest aircraft that’s ever flown. Now that’s quite a claim to fame as the largest aircraft ever built (barring the Spruce Goose, which is actually smaller despite its larger wingspan) is the Antonov An225. The An225 is a Russian craft designed to carry oversized payloads and there’s a brilliant shot in the link that shows it carrying Russia’s Buran Shuttle to give you an idea just how massive the thing is. The Stratolaunch carrier will dwarf that craft considerably weighing almost twice as much with well over double the thrust from the more modern engines. Combining this all together nets you a plane capable of carrying a staggering 490,000 pounds (~222,260 kgs) of payload. For it’s intended purpose that makes the Stratolaunch system capable of delivering some significant payloads.
Since SpaceX will be designing the booster we can assume it will be a middle of the road rocket between the Falcon 1 and the Falcon 9. My back of the envelope calculations using the Falcon 9 and scaling it back to the maximum payload of the Stratolaunch system puts the payload capability to LEO at 15,333lbs or about 7 tons. Considering the launch system is a reusable craft its conceivable that Stratolaunch could drive costs down considerably through economies of scale thanks to the (I assume) quick turn around times for launching from the carrier craft. I’ll also bet that the USA military will have a keen eye on this entire system as well since it’s capabilities could be quite useful to them.
I think Allen is onto a winner here with this kind of design and it has a lot of potential to change the small to medium payload game. Some of the technical feats they’re out to accomplish are truly inspiring and I’ll be waiting anxiously for them to come to fruition.
If there’s one thing that gets me excited it is seeing news about space that makes it to Australian TV. I don’t watch that much television normally but I do catch the morning news before I head off to work for the day. So you can imagine my surprise when none other than Sir Richard Branson appeared on my TV showing off Burt Rutan’s latest creation of SpaceShipTwo. Whilst we’d known about White Knight Two for some time (and saw a couple videos of it flying around the place) the critical component was always missing. Today Sir Branson unveiled SpaceShipTwo for the first time, and it really couldn’t come any sooner:
MOJAVE, Calif. – It has been pre-sold as an “out of this world premiere” – and you can’t get more off-world than unveiling a spaceliner built to whisk customers to the edge of space.
SpaceShipTwo is making its debut here at about 8:30 p.m. or 9 p.m. ET (5:30 – 6 p.m. PT) today. The super-slick looking rocket plane will be showcased as the world’s first passenger-carrying commercial spacecraft. The enterprise is under the financial wing of well-heeled U.K. billionaire and adventurer, Sir Richard Branson.
Branson created Virgin Galactic – billed as the world’s first commercial spaceline.
While there are few images of the completed craft floating around I can say that the short tour they did of SpaceShipTwo on the news this morning was spectacular. The renders it seems must have been pulled from the design files because the completed craft is almost identical to it’s 3D representation. Branson apparently wasn’t allowed to show the inside of the craft (due to FAA regulations apparently) but I’d also hazard a guess that the internals weren’t fully completed. The windows, for example, were completely blacked (well to be honest they looked painted on) out leading me to believe that they haven’t certified them yet. Still the first test flight is scheduled for tomorrow meaning that the majority of the flight hardware is in there, a significant milestone indeed.
Branson also let loose a few other interesting details. Firstly the next 18 months will be spent testing and verifying the craft’s capabilities. If this is going to be anything like the SpaceShipOne program they’ll do around 20 test flights the majority of which will be verifying the aerodynamic characteristics of the craft with about a quarter of them being powered flights to test the rocket engine and feathering system. 18 months is a fairly aggressive timeline for verification of a new craft but they’ve done this before so much of the groundwork is already laid, they just need to prove it will be safe enough for their paying customers.
And therein is the second tidbit of information that Branson let slip. There are already 300 customers who have paid the US$200,000 price tag for a flight and several thousand who paid a security deposit to secure a flight at a later date. Branson said several times that their main concern was reducing the costs to make space travel far more accessible and by the looks of it he has no shortage of early adopters who are willing to foot the bill. To really put his money where his mouth is his whole family will be going up on board the very first commercial flight, cementing his rhetoric in everyone’s minds.
Another fact which piqued my interest was the possibility of tiered flights. You see many people of varying age groups are going to want to use this service and they all have different physical capabilties. We all have an innate limit of how many g-forces we can take before blacking out and the comfort zone is well below that. For the majority of us the GLOC is between 4~6gs however this can be alleviated in 3 ways: changing the way you sit (like an astronaut laying down), applying the force gradually and wearing a special suit. Branson has mentioned all three of these characteristics before however today he mentioned that older people and those with medical conditions would still be able to fly aboard SpaceShipTwo however they wouldn’t be sent as high into space limiting any strain on their bodies. Its an interesting idea and definitely increases his potential market, but we’ll have to see how it pans out.
With this announcement Virgin Galactic has stepped out from the vaporware shadows that everyone had relegated them to. It’s an exciting time for commercial space travel with people like Branson creating the buzz that companies like SpaceX will be able to ride once their crafts are ready for human endeavours. The next 10 years are going to be extremely interesting as we see the rise of the new adventurers who dare to explore this final frontier.
Note: Just as I was about to hit the publish button on this article a friend of mine sent me this picture from the Space Fellowship:
My thanks to Danne for sending me that pic! 😀