The Final Frontier, Part 2: From Planetary Cargo to Space Hotels
May 24, 2007 4:00 AM PT
Before orbital travel becomes commonplace, there's another type of suborbital transit that will likely help fuel the orbital market while fulfilling a critical need in its own right -- "point-to-point transportation."
Part 1 of this three-part series discusses the latest advances in commercial space travel. Part 1 also includes predictions about the future of this industry. For instance, by 2021, more than 15,000 passengers could be flying on suborbital trips each year, representing revenues in excess of US$700 million, according to the aerospace consultancy Futron.
Point-to-point transportation would use suborbital travel to deliver cargo or people from one place on Earth to another faster than ever before.
After launching just out of Earth's atmosphere, the vehicle could then use what's known as "boost glide" to circle the globe at hypersonic speed -- in a fraction of the time, and with a fraction of the fuel that an airplane would need, Paul Czysz, professor emeritus of aerospace engineering at St. Louis University, told TechNewsWorld.
A Key Driver
"It takes a jumbo jet with cargo about 20 hours to reach halfway around the world -- you can't deliver a package in less than 24 hours," said Geoff Sheerin, PlanetSpace president and CEO, told TechNewsWorld. As a result, precious cargo such as transplant organs can't be transported around the globe today.
However, with a vehicle like PlanetSpace's Silver Dart, it would not only be possible, but it would use a fraction of the energy and ultimately could transport people as well. Flying at just half orbital speed, or mach 12, a vehicle could glide halfway around the world in 40 minutes, Sheerin said.
"You can generate extraordinary revenues without ever having to fly to orbit," he added. "I think point-to-point delivery of cargo and passengers is probably the biggest dollar industry that will initially occur. It will drive the design of vehicles that could also go to orbit in the same way that e-mail drove the development of the Internet -- it will push and drag space tourism into existence."
Of course, the orbital realm is where the possibilities of commercial space travel really begin to overlap with the classic fantasy of living among the stars and visiting other planets.
Achieving orbit is what allows us to stay in space for more than just a short time -- long enough to visit the International Space Station or the moon, for example. To do that, a vehicle needs to travel at very high velocity not just the 62 miles up into space, but well beyond, into what's known as low Earth orbit, which is between 124 and 1,240 miles above the Earth's surface.
To come back to Earth, the vehicle must be slowed down to below orbital speed, at which point Earth's gravitational pull will bring it back down.
Space Adventures, the Las Vegas-based company through which billionaire Charles Simonyi and Anousheh Ansari visited the International Space Station in the past year, is essentially the only commercial venture that currently offers commercial orbital trips into space.
Tickets start at $30 million, and travel is done on a Soyuz spacecraft launched every six months by the Russian Federation's Federal Space Agency. Only five private citizens have made the trip to date.
A number of other companies, including PlanetSpace, are currently conducting development and testing on private orbital vehicles.
A Pressing Need
However, the first orbital uses of these new, private vehicles will likely not be to transport passengers. Rather, the initial focus will be on cargo because of an upcoming, and urgent, need.
Specifically, NASA plans to retire the Space Shuttle in 2010, leaving the International Space Station without its current provider of cargo and supplies. To fill that gap, NASA has launched a new program -- the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program -- whereby it is working with private companies to help them develop the technology and skills they need to be able to make deliveries to the space station, Marc Timm, program executive for COTS, told TechNewsWorld.
Currently there are four companies working toward that goal: SpaceX, Rocketplane Kistler, t/Space and PlanetSpace. Each must achieve set milestones, including three demonstration flights by 2010. Once they have developed the capability of making deliveries to the space station, they will be free to sell those services commercially to whomever they wish, Timm said.
They will likely be able to use the technology to bring passengers into space as well.
"What NASA has done is focus and channel the efforts of at least these four partners towards supplying the ISS, and that includes the tools they would need to run a healthy space tourism program," PlanetSpace's Sheerin said. "Because of COTS, space tourism is closer than it has ever been."
Of course, if you bring people up into orbit, they have to have somewhere to go. Right now the International Space Station is pretty much the only option, but at least one entrepreneur has already been hard at work on the concept of the space hotel -- an orbiting place for visitors to stay for a week or more while they enjoy the wonders of space.
Bigelow Aerospace, founded by Budget Suites founder Robert Bigelow, has in fact already launched a one-third scale version of its inflatable structure design dubbed "Genesis I," which now orbits the Earth every 96 minutes. Later this year it plans to launch Genesis II, and it's aiming to launch human-habitable modules into space for use as orbital accommodations by 2012.
Space hotels are one part of the infrastructure that will make orbital space travel possible; another critical part will be convenient places to take off from and land back on Earth. They're called "Spaceports," and one is already being planned in the United States, located in New Mexico, as the result of a partnership between the state and Virgin Galactic.
Spaceport Sweden, which has also signed an agreement with Virgin Galactic, was officially inaugurated in February.
"Spaceport Sweden is additional confirmation of the worldwide interest and commitment to commercial space travel," said Rick Homans, cabinet secretary for economic development in the state of New Mexico.