NASA, Virgin Galactic May Fly Us to the Moon

Space enthusiasts, take note: Your chance to travel by rocket may be closer than you think. NASA and Virgin Galactic on Tuesday agreed to explore collaborations aimed at making commercial space travel a widespread reality.

NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and Virgin Galactic, a subsidiary of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, will explore possible collaborations in several areas including space suits, heat shields for spaceships, hybrid rocket motors and hypersonic vehicles capable of traveling five or more times the speed of sound, according to the memorandum of understanding.

“As we constantly seek to build upon the advances made by explorers who have come before us, we now embark upon an exciting time in space exploration history that realizes the unlimited opportunities presented by a commercial space economy,” said Shana Dale, NASA’s deputy administrator.

“By encouraging such potential collaborations, NASA supports the development of greater commercial collaboration and applications that will serve to strengthen and enhance the future benefits of space exploration for all of mankind.”

Tickets on Sale Now

The memorandum of understanding, which spans two years, stipulates that neither NASA nor Virgin Galactic will be required to fund the collaboration. The agreement was negotiated through NASA’s Space Portal, a new organization at NASA’s Ames site that seeks to promote the development of the commercial space economy.

Virgin Galactic, formed in September 2004, bills itself as the world’s first spaceline. It has secured exclusive rights to spacecraft technologies built by aerospace designer Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, maker of the award-winning SpaceShipOne, which was the first private spacecraft to reach space.

That vehicle now resides at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, but SpaceShipTwo, the next generation, is currently under construction.

Commercial flights are planned to begin by 2009. Each flight will last about two and a half hours, and six travelers may fly at a time. Tickets cost US$200,000, and three days of training are required.

“We are excited to be working with NASA and look forward to future collaborations in exploration and space travel,” said Alex Tai, vice president of operations for Virgin Galactic.

A Mixed Reception

News of the partnership and its goals met with a mixed reception.

“This is a very promising partnership,” James Oberg, a retired rocket scientist and now author and full-time media consultant, told TechNewsWorld.

“NASA’s fundamental innovation challenge is the narrow base of its workforce experience, which is not conducive to imagination and innovation,” he said. “Rutan’s group brings the antidote. They have shown a formidable breadth of capabilities and imaginative problem solving. They have very high credibility.”

Others in the aerospace community, however, were not so sure. Whereas Rutan’s SpaceShipOne made just up-and-down flights, the proposed travel program would involve traveling hypersonically and continuously for longer periods of time, and the team’s prospects for achieving that capability may be questionable.

A Formidable Challenge

“Technically, it was feasible to build a hypersonic vehicle 40 years ago, but I don’t know where they’ll get their expertise,” Paul Czysz, professor emeritus of aerospace engineering at St. Louis University, told TechNewsWorld. “I haven’t seen any names associated with [the project] who have experience in hypersonic configurations.”

SpaceShipOne’s award-winning flight was “a circus act,” Czysz said, noting that “on its second flight, it did rolls all the way up. It was an inherently unstable vehicle.”

The pilot had no control on part of that flight — just marginal control throughout SpaceShipOne’s history — and the vehicle had to be retired soon afterwards, Czysz added. “Rutan won the X prize, and that’s at least a silver star for that, but the vehicle is not one that could sustain continuous operation over time. It’s the wrong design for a hypersonic vehicle,” he declared.

Scientists with experience in hypersonic designs are very few throughout the world, Czysz noted, so much so that “they’d need names besides Branson and Rutan in the project to make me change my mind.”

The Power of Imagination

“It’s true that orbit flight is a hundred times harder than up-down flights are, and Rutan’s team doesn’t really publicly acknowledge this as clearly as they might,” Oberg conceded. “But they’ve still done more than anyone else has done. Rutan’s people have a capacity for reality-based imagination that is the key to their success — past, present and future.”

Asked if he would sign up for a flight on a Virgin Galactic spacecraft, Oberg cited physical limitations due to his height (he’s 6 feet 8 inches). Nevertheless, “I’ll encourage my kids to go,” he said.

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