Who will ride on the advanced spaceplanes of the future? Anyone with enough money who wants to go, and anyone with a destination in space. This will include space tourists, astronauts commuting to space stations, and inanimate cargo. The very same factors that funded the phenomenal success of the DC-3 will be responsible for ensuring the success of the advanced spaceplane, as well as the suborbital spaceplanes that precede it. If the public feels assured that the vehicle and its engines are reliable and safe enough, they will line up by the thousands to buy their tickets. This is already happening, albeit on a much smaller scale. With the success of SpaceShipOne in 2004, and the announcement by Virgin Galactic that they would soon begin offering suborbital space rides, lines quickly formed. Several hundred space tourists have already put down payments on future space experience flights. And this is before any real destinations have even been set up yet. This may be just as well, since it will be a while before spaceplanes have matured to the point of reaching orbital speed. Yet the fact that hundreds of future space tourists have already reserved their seats reveals that they will pay for the experience because they want to, not because they have any particular destination in mind. The spaceflight experience is destination enough.
Why would anyone want to ride into space? Because it is there, and because it is different. There is an insatiable urge of the human spirit to experience that which has never been experienced before, to go to places new and exciting. In my own case, I wanted to go to Sweden, a country my forebears had left a hundred years ago. The destination was there; I had a personal connection to it; so I worked for 2 years as a busboy, and finally went, all before reaching the age of 17. I got there by boarding an airliner in Denver, changing airlines in New York (waiting there cheerfully for 11 h), and flying to Europe by way of Iceland. I used the transportation readily at hand, which ultimately included the punctual European railway system. In the case of my ancestors, they boarded a ship somewhere on the coast of Sweden, and spent several weeks making the voyage to Boston. In both cases, we went because we wanted to, no other reason.
What kind of vehicle will space tourists of the future want to ride on? They will have their choice, in the coming years, of ballistic missile or spaceplane. Those with a higher degree of derring-do will doubtless choose the rocket, especially if they are as financially free as they are fearless. Those with less financial fortitude will choose the spaceplane, which will still be in an immature, suborbital stage of its development. These events will have important consequences for the future, because the spaceplane will garner far more customers than will the missiles, even if they do not go as far, as high, or as fast. Most important, however, is the inevitable result that those companies who operate spaceplanes will gain far more experience in spaceflight than those who concentrate on rockets alone. Both missiles and spaceplanes use rocket engines, and rocket engine experience is every bit as important as spaceflight experience. Furthermore, the most valuable flight experience in a spaceplane happens while it is flying through the atmosphere, not while it is floating in space.
As spaceplane companies begin to turn a profit with their suborbital clientele, there will be a continual push for ever faster craft that can reach ever greater altitudes, and offer their passengers better views for slightly longer periods of time in weightless conditions. While missiles are blasting into the heavens perhaps on a monthly basis, spaceplanes will be soaring into suborbit on an almost daily basis. Like the tortoise and the hare, those who follow the logical path of development from the suborbital spaceplane to the fully orbital article will win the race. Those who get side-tracked by ballistic or two-stage-to-orbit schemes will ultimately lose when it comes to space tourism. Given a choice between riding piggyback to orbit, or first class to suborbit, which would you choose, especially if the piggyback ride cost you 100 times as much?
As I write these words, space tourists are routinely expected to pay as much as $30 million to ride Russian rockets to the International Space Station. Virgin Galactic, meanwhile, expects its passengers to pay less than 1% of this figure, something on the order of $200,000. It is obvious who will get the most passengers and who will gain the most experience. The best course of development for the spaceplane is one that begins with suborbital craft similar to the Rocketplane XP, SpaceShipOne, or the XCOR Xerus, and ends up at some point in the future with fully capable single-stage-to-orbit designs that take off from runways under their own power and fly into space without the aid of external tanks, motherships, or ballistic boosters. Advanced engines will inevitably enable this kind of future to
materialize before our very eyes. Like the tortoise, or the Little Engine That Could, these companies will someday win out over all.
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