Virgin Galactic blasts into the great unknown

Virgin Galactic and others face safety, money, regulation issues in space tourism race

Virgin Galactic last night rolled out the very cool looking suborbital SpaceShipTwo spacecraft it expects will take thousands of space tourists on a rocket ride to near space.

Virgin Galactic’s chief Sir Richard Branson and the spaceship’s initial designer Burt Rutan (Scaled Composites is building the Virgin Galactic spaceships) led the press conference and demo for some 800 people at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. High profile dignitaries were there, such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to get a first-hand look at and promote the christening of SpaceShipTwo now called Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Enterprise.

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The Enterprise was slung under her mothership, VMS Eve. When operational, Eve will carry 6 passengers and up to 2 pilots in the Enterprise to about 50,000ft, where Enterprise will release and fire a rocket taking it to about 360,000ft at speeds over Mach 3, Virgin says. SpaceShipTwo will then glides back to a runway landing. The whole flight lasts about two hours.

While the buzz around space tourism is generally positive, the industry faces a number of unknowns such as safety issues and economic concerns going forward.

The Virgin Galactic spaceships for example, face a rigorous test schedule next year as the company gets set to fly actual people into sub orbit. Safety as they say will be a primary concern. One that has not escaped the government.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has hired 12 aerospace engineers, bringing its total staff to 71 full-time employees. In addition the FAA has established field offices at Edwards Air Force Base and NASA’s Johnson Space Center in anticipation of increased commercial space launches, according to a recently issued Government Accountability Office report.

That same report said that the FAA will need to determine whether its current safety regulations are appropriate for all types of commercial space vehicles, operations, and launch sites. If the industry indeed begins to expand to 200 to 300 annual launches in the future, a reassessment of the FAA’s resources and areas of expertise would be appropriate, the GAO stated. The FAA has not developed indicators that it would use to monitor the safety of the developing space tourism sector and determine when to step in and regulate human space flight, the GAO added. SpaceShipOne by the way was the first commercial reusable launch vehicle mission licensed by FAA, the GAO noted.

While safety is a concern, one has to wonder too if the money that supports the key spaceports needed for commercial space operations will be there in the future as economic worries continue.

The GAO stated that New Mexico provided $100 million to construct Spaceport America. According to an official from the Oklahoma spaceport, Oklahoma provides approximately $500,000 annually to the spaceport for operations, and the state paid for the environmental impact statement and the safety analysis needed to apply for an FAA license. The Florida Space Authority, a state agency, invested over $500 million in new space industry infrastructure, the GAO stated.

As commercial space operations grow, the FAA’s grand plan to transform the current radar-based air traffic management system into a more automated, aircraft-centered, satellite-based system know as NextGen, will need to accommodate spacecraft that are traveling to and from space through the national airspace system, the GAO stated. 

For example, the agency will have to define new upper limits to the national airspace system to include corridors for flights transitioning to space and set new air traffic procedures for flights of various types of space vehicles, the GAO stated.

Virgin Galactic is among a few companies looking to grow in the space tourism arena. Others, such as XCOR Aerospace and Armadillo Aerospace, have announced plans to develop vehicles to serve the personal spaceflight market as well.

Earlier this year a space flight fare war of sorts was declared as some of the major groups that will soon offer suborbital space flight have lopped off 50% or more to attract flyers.

Of course such fare wars are unlikely to start a stampede into space as we're still talking on average about $200,000. But RocketShip Tours and XCOR Aerospace recently said the cost of their suborbital space flight, which will could begin operation in 2010 will be $95,000.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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