A recent article in the New York Times
mentions that 2012 could be the year we see the start of limited space
tourism via suborbital flights by Virgin Galactic. I’m sure the media coverage (TV, web, magazines) will intensify throughout the year as we get closer to first launch, possibly by the end of the year. Other companies such as Blue Origin, SpaceX, and XCOR
have discussed the possibility of launching tourists to the
edge of space (suborbital) or even into orbit, but have not actually
built and certified any of their hardware for human flight. In spite of the increased media coverage, I’m
not yet convinced that we are that close to routinely taking paying
customers to space.
Virgin Galactic is definitely the closest of any of the companies to fly paying customers, with their SpaceShipTwo (SS2) having successfully flown gliding/landing tests in Mojave, CA within the least year. SpaceShipTwo is based on the success of SpaceShipOne, the innovative design of legendary aerospace engineer Burt Rutan. SpaceShipOne (SS1) was the first aerospace vehicle to take a private citizen to the edge of space in 2004 to win the first X Prize. It took Rutan’s team about 3 years to design, build, test and fly an aerospace vehicle to take one person up 62 miles. Even before SpaceShipOne flew it’s last flight, Virgin Galactic was formed to develop a larger version for paying customers. However, it has been much harder to scale up SS1 to take multiple passengers, as is evidenced by the over eight years since SS1 flights ended. The hard truth is that human space travel is technically very challenging, and paying customers (and in turn, the government air vehicle certification agencies) are going to demand a much higher degree of reliability and safety than a prototype flown by test pilots, such as SpaceShipOne.
The first paying customers on Virgin Galactic will be shelling out at least $200K for their flights, which being suborbital, will only provide about 5 minutes of continuous free flight in a very small cabin. If the main goal of a paying passenger is to experience weightlessness, you can get the same sensation for much less cost by taking one of these “zero-G” flights in a modified Boeing 727. You’ll also be able to do much more “floating” in the large aircraft cabin compared to the cramped cabin of SS2. I was able to fly in NASA’s famous “Vomit Comet” back in 1999, and I really enjoyed the sensation. I experienced over 15 minutes of zero-G (30 parbolas, about 30 seconds of floating on each parabola), more than 3 times the amount you will get on SS2. Of course in an aircraft you won’t get to experience the kick-in-the-butt acceleration when the SS2 rocket motor ignites, and the view of earth will be more spectacular from SS2, but once again, is that worth over almost 40 times the price? Personnally, I’d rather save my money and wait until I can go all the way to orbit, spending several days in zero-g and enjoying the view of earth while circling the globe. But I’m not anticipating that happening anytime soon at a reasonable (<50K) cost. Getting humans safely to orbit and back is another order of magnitude more expensive and technically difficult than suborbital flight. Media hype not withstanding, I’m figuring it will be at least another 10 years before we see anything remotely approaching regular orbital tourist flights to space.