The rise of commercial spaceflight

The last decade has seen a major shift in attitudes to manned spaceflight and exploration - they are no longer the preserve of superpower governments but now also the stuff of holiday brochures. The rise of space tourism and privately developed launch vehicles will open up spaceflight to many more people.

The idea that one day we might holiday in space would have seemed quite feasible to Wernher von Braun and his colleagues when they wrote their Collier's articles in the early 1950s. Even as late as 1968, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke could show a commercial space shuttle plying its trade between the Earth and orbit in their film 2001: A Space Odyssey without being dismissed as fantasists.

But as Cold War politics and constant budget cuts got in the way, the idea that space would ever be opened up to the masses faded away, or at least retreated into an unimaginably distant future. Space travel, it seemed, would only ever be open to the hardened professionals - pilots, engineers, and the occasional lucky scientist. It's all the more surprising, then, that today the pendulum has swung the other way, with space tourism a reality and a number of companies and respected businessmen developing plans to make it cheaper and more accessible.


SpaceShipOne m

X Prize winner SpaceShipOne has a totally unique flight profile. Taken to high altitude by the White Knight carrier aircraft, it fires its rockets to enter a suborbital trajectory, re-enters the atmosphere like a shuttlecock, and glides back to Earth like a Space Shuttle. The spacecraft itself is just 8.5m (28ft) long, while the carrier has a wingspan of 28m (92ft). Launch from altitude helps cut down its fuel weight, while slow re-entry speed reduces the need for thermal shielding.

1 powered by twin jet engines, White Knight carries SpaceShipOne to IS km (SO, 000ft)

2 released from White Knight, SpoceShipOne's unique rocket motor ignites, powering the spacecraft to 100km (60 miles) above the Earth at speeds of up to Moch 3

3 as SpaceShipOne drops bock into the atmosphere, its wings "feather", rotating into a configuration that slows re-entry

3 as SpaceShipOne drops bock into the atmosphere, its wings "feather", rotating into a configuration that slows re-entry

4 after re-entry, the wings unfold and SpaceShipOne glides home


The other X Prize competitors reached various stages of completion before SpaceShipOne stole the glory. Thunderstar (above) was a British-built rocket that has continued in development since 2004. Ascender (right) was an unfunded concept for a spaceplane using jet engines in the atmosphere and rockets at high altitude.

the ongoing Soyuz launches with passengers paying $20 million a time has proved too tempting to resist. For their money, those who can afford it get an intensive programme of preparation at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre and a trip to the ISS in the "spare" seat of a Soyuz TMA spacecraft. Attitudes aboard the ISS have changed since the first space tourist, US entrepreneur Dennis Tito, was grudgingly accepted by NASA. Today, tourists are made more welcome and given mundane but useful tasks to help with the running of the station. Despite the high cost, the Russian Space Agency has a waiting list for its flights, and since Tito's mission

Tourists in orbit

The first space tourists, admittedly, have been drawn from the ranks of the super-rich, and assisted into orbit by eager government agencies - especially the Russian Space Agency. For an organization operating on a relative shoestring, the prospect of bankrolling


The other X Prize competitors reached various stages of completion before SpaceShipOne stole the glory. Thunderstar (above) was a British-built rocket that has continued in development since 2004. Ascender (right) was an unfunded concept for a spaceplane using jet engines in the atmosphere and rockets at high altitude.

of 2001, several others have flown. These included South African businessman Mark Shuttleworth, US electronics manufacturer Gregory Olsen, and Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-born American who made her money in the software industry.

Competing for space

Ansari is where the boundaries between present and future space tourism merge, for money from her and her brother-in-law, Amir Ansari, has helped drive the development of the commercial launch industry. They were major sponsors of the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million competition to find a reusable piloted spacecraft that could travel to an altitude of 100km (60 miles) twice within two weeks.

The prize spurred an international race that drew 26 competitors and proved an effective way to kick-start the industry. It was ultimately won when the TierOne project's SpaceShipOne (see panel, above) made suborbital hops on 29 September and 4 October 2004. SpaceShipOne was a pioneer in more ways than one, with a truly ingenious design by Burt Rutan (see panel, opposite) that got around some of the major drawbacks of traditional launch vehicles instead of seeking merely to imitate them.



SpaceShipOne is docked to the underside of White Knight prior to launch. The spacecraft now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution alongside the Bell X-1.




SpaceShipOne is docked to the underside of White Knight prior to launch. The spacecraft now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution alongside the Bell X-1.


An artist's impression of SpaceShipTwo, currently under construction. The scaled-up version will carry two pilots and six paying passengers.

Package tours to space

The X Prize appears to have done its job, for even before the qualifying flights British entrepreneur Richard Branson fixed a deal with TierOne to develop a larger SpaceShipTwo for use by Virgin Galactic, a commercial tourism venture. Other X Prize runners-up have also taken their


Anousheh Ansari during training for her trip to the ISS. Ansari launched aboard Soyuz TMA-9 on 78 September 2006, and spent nine days aboard the station before returning to Earth on 29 September.

ideas to market, and the first in a new wave of space tourists should be flying by 2010. Elsewhere, too, a new spirit of enterprise seems to have gripped the spaceflight community. Jeff Bezos of has formed a company called Blue Origin, which appears to be building on the DC-X single-stage-to-orbit concept of the early 1990s (see p.299) to produce a commercial spacecraft called New Shepard. The X Prize itself has

The designer of SpaceShipOne is Oregon-born, California-raised Burt Rutan (b.1943). He designed his first aircraft when just eight years old and took his first solo flight aged 16. After studying aeronautical engineering, he worked on aircraft testing at the US Air Force's Edwards Air Force Base. In 1974 he set up an aircraft factory in California's Mojave desert. Specializing in strong, light, and fuel-efficient aircraft, in 1982 it became Scaled Composites. Before the flight of SpaceShipOne in 2004, his most famous aircraft was the Voyager, which in 1986 became the first aircraft to fly non-stop around the world.

become something of a phenomenon, spawning new competitions in aerospace and other fields. And even NASA has seen the benefits of competition, setting up a series of Centennial Challenges and investing half-a-billion dollars in contracts with two private aerospace companies who produced winning designs for a new ISS transport vehicle.


In the early 1970s, concern about pollution and a growing population prompted many to consider radical solutions. Gerard K. O'Neill (1927-92), a professor of physics at Princeton University, suggested that large, self-sustaining colonies or "space habitats" could be established in Earth orbit, developing ideas that dated back to Tsiolkovskii and Bernal. In the mid-1970s, O'Neill and his colleagues published a series of papers that investigated the practical construction of such habitats, coming up with several detailed designs. In 1976 he published the influential book The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, and the following year he founded the Space Studies Institute, which funds the development of space-based industry.

What is the future of humanity in space? Will mass space travel and the colonization of other worlds ever become a reality, or will space travel remain forever the preserve of an elite few?

More than a century ago, Konstantin Tsiolkovskii was already certain of the answer - he spoke eloquently of mankind's need to spread its wings and journey to other worlds. Oberth, Goddard, von Braun, and Korolev were among the many who agreed with him and strove to fulfil his original dreams. And yet, just as technology reached a point where such dreams could be a reality, political realities intervened and the future was stolen away.

Today, there are many who argue that the manned exploration of space is an expensive diversion from problems on Earth - wars, poverty, and environmental crisis. Ironically, the revolution in ecological awareness that created a generation of critics can be traced in part to 1968, when those first famous pictures of the Earth alone in space were sent back by the astronauts of Apollo 8.

By the 1990s, manned spaceflight risked becoming an irrelevance. Even many enthusiasts felt that the retreat to Earth orbit was a diversion from the real aims of exploring the Solar System and settling other worlds. Robert Zubrin (see p.304) argued that such an approach was like abandoning exploration of the Americas after Columbus.

However, the sudden appearance of space tourism and the redirection of NASA to manned exploration beyond Earth orbit have seen the start of what may be a rapid change. Continuing Zubrin's analogy, enthusiasts for this new age of democratic space exploration have pointed out that it also took several decades after those first pioneering voyages for the


In one futuristic space habitat design, a pair of rotating cylinders 22km (13.7 miles) long and 6.2km (3.9 miles) across could support up to 20 million people continuing an independent civilization in space.

settlement and exploration of the New World to begin in earnest. Today, NASA has plans for its first moonbase and a future directive to continue to Mars. China is only taking its first steps into space, yet it is already looking as far afield as Mars and Saturn. And the enterprising space tourism community plans to follow its first wave of suborbital vehicles with spacecraft capable of reaching orbit and docking with existing or future space stations.


Physicist, historian of science, and one of the first to propose large-scale space habitats, Irishman John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971) predicted that one day the human race might split irrevocably into two species: Earthkind and Spacekind.

Visions of the future

By the centenary of Sputnik 1, there may well be orbiting hotels and commercial flights to the Moon. The national space agencies may have established a base on Mars, and manned expeditions may be venturing further afield. Commercial exploration of the Moon and asteroids is already being planned - our satellite is rich in mineral resources, and any major space construction project would almost certainly use materials mined there instead of those launched at great expense from Earth. The asteroids, while harder to reach, are an even richer potential source of valuable minerals and metals.

We may never see space stations as ambitious as the space habitats suggested by the American physicist Gerard O'Neill (see panel, left), but self-sustaining colonies on other worlds seem increasingly plausible as we learn more about the


resources scattered across the Solar System. It may even be possible one day to terraform other worlds

- seeding them with bacteria and gases that turn them eventually into hospitable environments, just as once happened on Earth itself.

Perhaps the ultimate dream is to venture across the stars and become truly independent of Earth and the Solar System. The distances involved are astronomical in the truest sense of the word - even the nearest star is 8,900 times more distant than Neptune. Expeditions to the stars may not happen for centuries and, if and when they do, they will almost certainly involve technologies that are currently in their infancy (such as nuclear propulsion

- see panel, right) or not yet thought of. But as renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking has said, the colonization of space may ultimately be the only way to ensure the long-term future of the human race.

The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle


A journey to the stars in any reasonable timescale would require a new propulsion system - neither chemical rockets nor ion engines are up to the job. In the 1950s, US physicists Theodore Taylor and Freeman Dyson showed how a spacecraft might be powered instead by a series of explosions from small nuclear bombs detonating in its engine. A prototype of their Project Orion was tested with chemical explosives, but the use of nuclear material was so controversial that the concept was shelved. In the 1970s, the idea was revived by the British Interplanetary Society in Project Daedalus, the first detailed study of a practical starship design.


Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, 1903

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