The rocket's red glare: In your backyard?

Will commercial space flight ventures become so prevalent in the next 25 years it will be just as common to see a rocket ship of some sort zoom over your house as a 737?

nasa rocket

Seems to be a real possibility if you listen to some executives at the FAA. 

Speaking at the recent FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference, the agency's Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, Dr. George Nield, pondered whether or not there was anything the public would be willing to do, in an effort to aid the development of a safe and successful commercialization of space industry?

"How about a project to investigate the feasibility of regularly flying rockets near populated areas? Well, we can dream...," he said.

Such testing might be hard to get many citizens behind but Nield noted a variety of recent and future space-related activities that might soon require such tests.

For example:

  • Since January of 2007, there have been 12 commercial launches licensed by the Office of Commercial Space Transportation and another 14 permitted launches.
  • During that period the final rule for flights involving crew and passengers took effect, and the final regulations for experimental permits were issued. We also published a major update to our Amateur Rocket regulations, and the Aerospace Corporation completed the congressionally mandated report on Human Space Flight Safety.
  • The FCC dedicated the Oklahoma spaceport and issued a license for the operation of Spaceport America in New Mexico, with whom Virgin Galactic recently signed a 20-year lease.
  • Virgin Galactic's partner, Scaled Composites, has also been busy. In January they unveiled a model of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, rolled out the real thing in July, and flew it in December.
  • In November of 2007, Space X broke ground on their launch complex at Cape Canaveral. In November of 2008, they conducted a 9-engine test-fire of their Falcon 9 booster, and then at the end of the year, completed integrating the vehicle at the Cape.
  • Orbital Sciences was selected to participate in the COTS program and announced it will develop and test its new rocket at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island.
  • XCOR unveiled the design of its Lynx suborbital vehicle and test fired its 5K18 engine; and Armadillo Aerospace captured Level I of the Lunar Lander Challenge.

And in the next 25 Months:

  • According to the current plan, the first flight of Orbital's new Taurus II rocket will take place in late 2010.
  • The Space X website manifest lists 11 more flights through 2010.
  • XCOR plans test flights of the Lynx in 2010 and has received deposits for more than 20 passenger flights so far.
  • Scaled Composites is expected to be busy testing both WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. And Bigelow Aerospace has announced plans to launch their Sundancer module early in the next decade.
  • So whether you look back 25 months, or look ahead 25 months, one can see concrete progress on either side of today.
  • And that's just in the United States, where so many arrows are either on the fly or ready to launch.

Nield noted that 45 years ago last week, the FAA and the US Air Force initiated a significant and remarkable research effort.  Its objective was to determine whether the American public could learn to live with sonic booms on a regular and frequent basis, such as might be experienced if the country were to have a fleet of supersonic transports flying every day in the national airspace system.

Test aircraft used included the F-104 Starfighter and the B-58 Hustler. The test subjects were the inhabitants of Oklahoma City - all 500,000 of them. Over a six-month period, they were exposed to 1254 sonic booms - on average, about eight per day. The good news is that 73% of the people reported that they could live with that kind of impact indefinitely. The bad news is that about 25% of the population considered the booms to be unacceptable. About 15,000 complaints were received, with 4,900 claims filed against the government, most for cracked plaster and broken windows.

NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) last year announced a partnership to jointly research sonic boom. NASA said sonic boom modeling is one of the key technologies needed to let a next generation supersonic aircraft quiet enough that it can fly supersonically over land without significant disturbance to the people or damage to property under such noise.

Nield went on to say Commercial space makes modern global communications possible. And the modern world without commercial space transportation would not be the truly modern world.

You may recall that Nield in a speech last year touting the commercialization of space said:  "Passengers will be riding a vessel packed with a volatile mix of carefully processed chemical ingredients, thousands of interdependent parts, and extremely sophisticated software. And they will be bound for an inhospitable environment far, far away from where they bought their tickets," Nield said. "Private human space flight is like climbing Mount Everest with a lot farther to fall."

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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