I’ll be the first to admit that I have a massive nerd crush on any private space company that’s demonstrated working hardware. Long time readers of this blog will know that there are two in particular: Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. Most recently all of my love has been directed to SpaceX as they began to make waves with their Falcon 1 and 9 rockets but it’s been a while since we heard anything about Virgin Galactic’s craft, SpaceShipTwo. Three months ago saw them flying a full crew aboard both the VSS Enterprise and Mothership Eve so we knew they were in the thick of testing and verifying all of their flight systems. Still even the extremely head of Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson, hadn’t made any statements about the progress of the craft.
That was until just recently, however.
Flicking through my Twitter feed this morning I noticed quite a few articles popping up mentioning SpaceShipTwo. As it turns out the sub-orbital craft made its first solo flight after be released from it’s mothership at 45,000 feet and gliding back down to earth:
“This was one of the most exciting days in the whole history of Virgin,” said Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic. “For the first time since we seriously began the project in 2004, I watched the world’s first manned commercial spaceship landing on the runway at Mojave Air and Space Port and it was a great moment. Now, the sky is no longer the limit and we will begin the process of pushing beyond to the final frontier of space itself over the next year.”
“This is a critical milestone in Virgin Galactic’s test program and a great day for the commercial spaceflight industry,” added John Gedmark, Executive Director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “At the end of the day, getting hardware off the ground is what it’s really all about. Today’s SpaceShipTwo test flight marks another key milestone towards opening the space frontier for private individuals, researchers, and explorers. Congratulations to the entire SpaceShipTwo team.”
Virgin Galactic has since released a video of the flight in question:
The news comes hot on the heels of an announcement made just a couple weeks ago that Virgin Galactic will be open for business in just 18 months. Between now and then there are still a myriad of tests and certifications that need to be done on the craft, not least of which is several powered flights to the edge of space. This first drop test verifies SpaceShipTwo’s glider mode of operation and is a crucial first step towards the ultimate goal of powered flight. The next 18 months will see a steady progression tests to push the envelope of SpaceShipTwo’s capabilities ensuring that this iconic spacecraft is never too far from public eye.
To me SpaceShipTwo represents exactly where the private space industry needs to be heading. Branson’s focus on commoditising travel to space ensures that, whilst sub-orbital junkets are out of the reach of the everyman today, one day they will be as international air travel was decades ago. Virgin Galactic is also committed to furthering their capabilities beyond sub-orbital flights with Branson stating on several occasions that should SpaceShipTwo be a success (and by all means, it already is) that the next generation of craft will be capable of orbital flight. You could take that as just marketing hype but when the man behind SpaceShipOne already has designs for such a craft it would seem doubtful that it was mere rhetoric.
Humanity is on the cusp of a revolution in space where venturing to the final frontier will be as common as visiting another country. As someone who can’t stop dreaming about seeing the blue marble for themselves the idea of anyone with the will and the want to venture beyond our atmosphere being able to do so brings me unimaginable joy. The next decade will see amazing revolutions in the private space travel industry and I, for one, can’t wait.
It seemed like last year was the year of the space shysters with a fair few questionable companies coming out of no where and making large claims about putting people into space. I launched a volley of blogtastic skepticism at a few of the more vocal ones who have consequently not reared their heads again since their initial press flurry. Still there was a lot of progress since then with SpaceShipTwo making its debut and SpaceX successfully launching its Falcon 1 twice into orbit around earth. This year however hasn’t seen anyone else attempt to make a splash in the private space market, that was until now.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the majority of people reading this blog will be familiar with the name John Carmack. For those who aren’t he’s somewhat of a game industry legend having being involved in the computer games industry for well over 20 years and his fame was made with such classic titles as Commander Keen, Doom and Quake. He’s well respected as being extremely talented and dedicated to the games that he produces, something that seems to have disappeared from so many game companies once they hit the big time. About 10 years ago after getting tired of turbo charging Ferraris¹ he set up a company called Armadillo Aerospace and set about developing rocket technologies in much the same fashion as he did developing game. He also went up against Scaled Composites for the Ansari X-Prize, albeit with about 10% of their budget.
For the most part though they’ve kept from making any broad media statements and have spent much of their time developing their lunar lander vehicles. The past 2 years have seen them win 2 prizes in the Nothrop Gruman Lunar Lander Challenge and they’ve been heavily involved in the new extreme sport called the Rocket Racing League. You’d then be forgiven for thinking that they’d given up on the aspirations that they once held when they were competing for the X-prize competition because really, nothing they’ve said or done thus far has shown any progress towards putting people into space.
You can then imagine my surprised when this little gem turned up in my feed reader:
Space Adventures is going to use an Armadillo Technologies rocket to launch amateur astronauts 62 miles into the sky. Nothing new, except that they will do it for half the price of Virgin Galactic‘s ticket, and in a real rocket!
Yes, an actual rocket launching vertically, not a glorified spaceplane like SpaceShipTwo. A real rocket, launched vertically. Clear the tower, godspeed, and all that. You know, like the real astronauts with the right stuff in the right places. And then, five minutes on the edge of space, and down you go. Almost like Alan Shepard in his Freedom 7—but hopefully with a lot less Gs—instead of playing a snob version of Chuck Yeager in Rutan’s spaceplane.
Before I rip into Diaz for being an ignorant jerk I just want to say how awesome this development is. If you take a look at some of the videos of the Armadillo craft in action (aaahhhh ignore this one) you’ll see why it will be so impressive to have these guys lifting people into space. Their crafts are very well designed and you can see the control software at work, vectoring the thrust ever so slightly to keep the entire craft upright and level. It’s akin to balancing a broomstick on your hand, except on the other end of the broom there’s about a ton of spacecraft and enough explosives to make even the most recluse pyromaniacs giddy.
There’s also the design of the craft to consider, it’s a Vertical Take Vertical Landing (VTVL) craft. For those who’ve gone into space there’s usually only 2 ways to get back down: you glide back ala SpaceShipOne and the Shuttle or you plummet like a rock with a special set of parachutes to stop you, landing either at sea (much more comfortable) or on land. Armadillo’s craft however will use its rockets² to do what’s called a soft landing, firing them several times to slow down and then using them to hover slowly down for landing. Using rockets to land really hasn’t been done on Earth because well, the lovely thick atmosphere that we have is quite apt at slowing you down. Additionally if you’re going to soft land you need to carry the required fuel to land with you up into orbit. As well all know weight is king in space endeavours and the less weight you can take up with you the better.
Then there’s the price, $102,000. Whilst that’s being spruiked as half the cost of a flight on SpaceShipTwo it neatly ignores the fact that both of those are intial prices. Branson and Rutan have both said on numerous occasions that those prices would come down over time and their target price was somewhere in the $10~20,000 region. Of course that price won’t be met for quite a long time but after the initial round of 200 flights they stated the cost would come down to $100,000, equivalent to Armadillo’s price. The good news is that with 2 very serious competitors vying for the sub-orbital space tourism industry us as the consumers will ultimately win out with cheaper prices, bringing a trip into space into the realm of the everyman.
Don’t think I forgot about you Diaz. What, pray tell, do you think are the requirements for something to be a rocket? Because for both SpaceShipOne and the Armadillo craft both of them are rockets, no question. The only difference between them is the propellant they use with one being nitrous oxide and rubber and the other some liquid (probably LOX/kerosene). Is the difference then that you’re launched from the ground rather than a captive carry plane? Pffft don’t get me started, since the current American space program owes its success to the X-15 experiments which were done in almost exactly the same way as SpaceShipOne. It doesn’t matter how you cross that line in the sand that we’ve called space, you won’t really be an astronaut on either (you’ll be a spaceflight participant), unless of course you’re the one actually flying it (doubt it buddy).You might think that SpaceShipOne is a snob spacecraft but the facts remains, it’s a rocket and it pays more homage to the true roots of space travel than you care to be aware of.
If there’s something that gets me excited it’s when talented people, like those at Armadillo Aerospace, announce that they’re going to do something as ambitious as putting people into space. It speaks volumes that despite the economic disasters that plagued our world that the current generation of space pioneers have not lost sight of their end goals. The next decade is going to be one of a revolution in the realm of private space activities and every piece of news like this just makes me ever more confident that one day space travel will become as common for the everyman as taking a plane.
Of course we’ll have to have spaceport security then, but I’d be willing to put up with that after spending a glorious few minutes floating above our beautiful earth 🙂
¹I don’t have a link for this quote but I can distinctly remember an interview where he said he needed something more exciting than buying a Ferrari and turbo charging it. At the time I hated him for the statement (young and jealous at the time!) but if I was in the same situation I’d be doing pretty much the same thing.
² I’m trying to find an official source for the VTVL capability of this craft but I’m coming up blank. Looking at the design it’s pretty clear that this thing is designed to land “ass first” and there doesn’t seem to be anyone saying that it will use parachutes to come back to earth. The closest I have so far is this Slashdot comment, but I’d be much happier if I could get some official word on how their craft plans to land on terra firma.
There’s one part of my brain that seems to sit there quietly until I get into the fun situation of wanting something to happen and it being too good to be true. It’s like a cognitive dissonance detector which springs into action whenever I have conflicting thoughts about a matter and it’s served me well in the past. I remember once being asked by a gentleman, who was cleanly dressed but seemed rather panicked, that he needed a lift into town to get to his girlfriend who was in a car crash. I wasn’t going where he needed to go so I had to decline him, but that part of my brain felt the story was bull. After picking up my fellow blogging friend I went to said location to check, and lo and behold there was no crash to speak of. As it turns out this person was known to my friend and he has been pulling that scam for years now, but apparently he usually asks for bus fare instead of a ride. That same part of my brain flared up when I read this article:
Some forward-looking vacationers have already booked a stay at the first space hotel, which is on track to open in 2012, according to the owners of the planned orbital resort.
Spacefarers can book a three-night stay at the Galactic Suite Space Resort for $4.4 million, the Barcelona-based company planning the hotel has said. So far 43 paying guests have already reserved a spot, while more than 200 have expressed interest, Galactic Suite Ltd’s CEO Xavier Claramunt told Reuters.
Despite Claramunt’s confidence, critics have questioned whether the hotel can really be ready so soon, and whether the company has enough money to see the plan through. Claramunt said an anonymous billionaire has fronted the company $3 billion to finance the project.
Let’s be generous and say that 2012 can mean December 31st and that gives them around 3 years to design, build and flight test a new space habitat. That’s an exceedingly aggressive timeline for any kind of space craft, especially those ones that are designed to support human life for any amount of time. Whilst I’m excited at the prospect that there’s a potential competitor in the world of space tourism I can’t help but look at this with a healthy dose of skepticism.
First off there’s already a company that’s been planning to do this thing for a long time, and that’s Bigelow Aerospace. These guys are the real deal, founded by chain hotel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow they were founded back in 1999 after Robert achieved his dream of making enough money to found his own space hotel company. They took the ingenious way of creating a space hotel, licensing technology from NASA. Specifically it was the transhab design which is in essence an inflatable space capsule that allows you to create very large structures in space whilst keeping the payload size small and light. The reason I say these guys are the real deal is that they have already launched 2 of their transhab modules into space, Genesis I and II. What really makes me all giggly when I hear about them is that they’re already in cahoots with SpaceX for launching their next module Sundancer which will form the base of their first commercial space station. Bigelow and his team really have the whole idea down pat and will be the first private company to have a fully functioning space station.
Can you see the difference between Bigelow and Galactic Suite? Bigelow has been at this for 10 years and have still yet to put a livable habitat up there. The earliest references I’ve seen about Galactic suite are from 2007, meaning that they’ll just be celebrating their 5 year anniversary when they’re ready to take paying customers. Since all we’ve seen from them so far is pretty renders and small scale models I can’t believe that they will be ready in time for the deadline they’ve set themselves.
That’s not the only problem with their idea either. The article makes reference to them using “Russian rockets” to get their guests to the hotels. Now this isn’t a bad idea per say, the Russians have always been pretty accommodating to space tourists in order to get some cash flow into their operations. In fact Space Adventures recently managed to up their capacity by purchasing some extra capacity from Energia who said they could build 5 Soyuz craft per year rather than 4. But that’s also their problem, the only “Russian rocket” that would be available to take space tourists into space would be the Soyuz and currently the company making the flights is maxed out supplying Rosaviakosmos and Space Adventures. Unless they have some in with a Russian program that I don’t know about and the Russians aren’t speaking about their plan to get people to their hotel isn’t going to work. I would’ve cut them some slack if they said they were going to use Dragon capsules from SpaceX as that has enough unknowns in it to make it slightly possible but with them supplying Bigelow and NASA I’d still be casting a skeptical eye their way.
Just like with the Neptune launch system I’ll happily eat my words should these guys ever actually launch anything. I’m all for competition in space as in the long run it means cheaper access to space for us all, something which I believe that everyone should experience in their lifetimes. Still every time one of these stories crosses my radar I can’t help but feel a little bit of disappointment, as promises that never materialize do nothing but damage the wider worlds’ view of the space tourism industry. They say no publicity is bad publicity but in this case, the emerging industry suffers greatly at the hands of the vaporware peddlers.
Take any emerging industry and you’ll always find companies who blast into the market claiming that they have the technology to compete with the big guys. Sometimes this turns out to be true as we’ve seen many a garage based business turn into multi-billion dollar gambits. Granted a lot of these things are a lot easier when the capital required to get the thing going is minimal (Anyone could start a google rival for less than a $1000, whether people would use it or not is another question) so when it comes to things like the emerging private space industry the fly-by-nighters have been few and far between. It also hasn’t stopped some companies who’ve apparently been in the game for years from attempting the same thing:
Mojave, California-based Interorbital Systems (IOS) announced Saturday that it is developing a two-person orbital crew module as an addition to its orbital tourism operations to loft in late 2011 aboard the company’s modular NEPTUNE 1000 rocket.Two Interorbital Systems test pilots—Nebojsa Stanojevic, a ‘Tweeting’ Serbian, and Miroslav Ambrus-Kis, [vid], a ‘Tweeting’ Croatian, both of whom are seasoned explorers, will be aboard the NEPTUNE 1000 spacecraft. The test pilots are also a part of the Synergy Moon Team for the Google Lunar X-Prize.
Interorbital Systems, that’s a new name to me but they’ve been around for almost 13 years. Their mainstay appears to be sounding rockets which are small payload vehicles designed for sub-orbital junkets. They were apparently a competitor for the Ansari X-Prize although I never saw anything from them. A quick search turns up their concept for a vehicle called Solaris X which they’ve classified as a rocket plane. I’ll forgive the liberal use of the name plane here (since you know planes have wings and all) but the fact that the only pictures I can find of it are renders and no test hardware shows that they can’t have been too serious about it. Especially when you consider Scaled Composites who had several public flight tests of their hardware long before they won the X-Prize.
But let’s not dwell on the past, these guys are promising us rides into orbit for the princely sum of $800,000 per passenger. It’s 4 times the initial cost of Virigin Galactic’s flights into space but I’ll be honest the prospect of spending 12 hours in orbit vs 5 minutes would definitely worth the price difference. But it’s that price difference that first triggered my bullshit detector, and my subsequent investigation into their launch technology has unfortunately brought me to a more bleak conclusion than my first reaction had.
What they are developing is a new launch system called NEPTUNE, which they’re touting as a modular launch system. In essence that sounds like a cool idea, need more payload into orbit? Slap on a couple more common propulsion modules. However looking at their design brings up a couple points that make me concerned about this system being viable, especially when it conjures up memories of launch systems past.
It’s a radical design with a total of 33 engines on the bottom. Does it remind you of anything? In a previous blog post I detailed the Soviet moonshot and their failed heavy lift booster the N1. If you follow the link and look at the bottom of that ill fated rocket you’ll notice that it has 30 engines in the first stage. Many of the problems the rocket encountered was trying to get all the motors to fire synchronously and whilst the NEPTUNE 1000 won’t be firing all of them at once they will be attempting to fire 24 for the initial boost. They site the many successes of the Soyuz class of rockets on their site, probably as an attempt to disarm critics like myself, but they also fail to mention that the majority of other launch systems use far fewer engines synchronously (and for good reason to). Additionally the NEPTUNE 1000 uses parallel staging which means that unlike most traditional launch systems which shed their stages the NEPTUNE will be carrying them all up with them, reducing the payload. I could be wrong though but their current design doesn’t appear to lend itself to shedding the excess weight of spent stages however.
I won’t comment too much on their space capsule but suffice to say when they’re working on a budget of about 1000kg for 2 passengers, life support for 12 hours and re-entry shielding I’m not too confident that they can do it. Even the Gemini capsules were over 3000kg.
I love the idea, I really do. Anything that can lower the barrier to space is something worth pursuing. However like any emerging industry we’re plagued with those who make grandiose claims and never deliver. For now Interorbital is in my vaporware category but I’ll happily buy a ride from them should they ever actually launch something.