American manned spaceflight in 2018?

As readers of a previous post will know, since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in July 2011, America has been unable to put any astronauts into orbit around the Earth. Instead, it has been reliant on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). This situation may finally change in 2018; in the final two months of the year there are two missions tentatively planned to take astronauts to the ISS on American spacecraft. Interestingly, as a result of a change in space policy by the Obama administration eight years ago, both these missions will be in spacecraft designed and built by private companies, rather than NASA.

The Boeing CT-100 Starliner Space Capsule – image from NASA. In late 2018 this spacecraft may take astronauts to and from the ISS.

In a major speech in 2010, US President Obama announced a major shift in the function of NASA in American human space flight.

By buying the services of space transportation — rather than the vehicles themselves — we can continue to ensure rigorous safety standards are met. But we will also accelerate the pace of innovations as companies — from young startups to established leaders — compete to design and build and launch new means of carrying people and materials out of our atmosphere. ….

Some have said, for instance, that this plan gives up our leadership in space by failing to produce plans within NASA to reach low Earth orbit, …. But we will actually reach space faster and more often under this new plan, in ways that will help us improve our technological capacity and lower our costs, which are both essential for the long-term sustainability of space flight.’

(White House press release 2010)

Image from Wikimedia Commons

So, rather than build its own spacecraft to replace the Space Shuttle, NASA awarded grants to private companies to support research and development into human space flight. The program had a number of phases. In the first phase five companies were awarded grants to partially fund the research and development of the key technologies and capabilities that could ultimately be used in human space transportation systems. In the next phases, NASA awarded further grants to four companies to develop spacecraft that could send to astronauts to the ISS after the Space Shuttle’s retirement.

Image from NASA

After another selection process, in 2014 NASA made the final decision that the winners of the contracts for up to six crewed flights to transport astronauts to and from the ISS were as follows.

  • Boeing – They were given a contract worth up to $4.2 billion, to transport astronauts on their CT-100 Starliner spacecraft.
  • Space X –  This is a company set up by Elon Musk, the co-founder of Paypal. They were given a contract worth up to $2.6 billion to transport astronauts on their Dragon V2 – pictured below.

For more details see the reference below (NASA 2014).

 

DragonV2

 The Dragon V2 Spacecraft – Image from NASA 

When the final decision was made it was hoped that the winning companies would be able to launch manned missions to the ISS by 2017. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, there have been numerous delays in the development of both spacecraft and the launch dates have slipped.

According to the current launch schedule (https://www.nasa.gov/launchschedule/ ) , the target dates for unmanned test flight of both spacecraft are August 2018, although an exact date hasn’t been specified. If there are no further delays and these test flights do take place in August and are successful, then in November 2018 the Boeing CT 100 spacecraft will be the first American spacecraft to carry astronauts into orbit since the retirement of the Space Shuttle. This will be followed by Dragon v2 the following month.

Opportunities for space tourism

The contract terms are that both companies will charge NASA around $60 million for each seat on a flight to the ISS. This is slightly cheaper than the amount it pays to the Russian space agency for a seat aboard Soyuz. The real boost is that, rather than the money going to the Russian space agency, it will go to American companies, boosting American high technology industries and creating American jobs.

Once they have fulfilled their contractual commitments to NASA, both companies are free to sell to additional spare capacity to space tourists willing to spend around $60 million dollars for a flight into orbit. This would be a very different type of space tourism than that offered by Virgin Galactic where customers will pay $250,000 for a three hour flight of which only two minutes are above an altitude of 100 km, which is defined as the boundary of space.

.Virgin Galactic rocket motor

Artist impression of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo accelerating into Space – Image from Virgin Galactic

In February 2017 Elon Musk made the bold announcement that two individuals, who I must assume are extremely wealthy, had approached him and put down a ‘substantial deposit’ for a private spaceflight around the Moon in the Dragon v2 capsule.  At the time this was widely reported in the media e.g.  https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/feb/27/spacex-moon-private-mission-2018-elon-musk

Musk refused to say who the individuals were or how much they had paid, but I would expect that the total cost of the spaceflights will be over $100 million dollars each.  To achieve enough speed to escape from the Earth’s gravity and reach the Moon the mission would use SpaceX’s new booster, the Falcon Heavy rocket, which was first launched in February 2018.

The Falcon Heavy launcher – image from Wikimedia Commons. This launcher could be used to launch a Dragon V2 spacecraft around the Moon

The spaceflight would be likely to follow a path known as free-return trajectory. I’ll talk about free-return trajectories in a later post, but essentially the idea is that it uses the Moon’s gravity to slingshot the spacecraft back to Earth, thus minimising the amount of fuel needed.

A typical free-return trajectory – image from Wikimedia Commons.

The original announcement said the spaceflight would be in 2018. However, according  to reports earlier this month, like this one, Elon Musk has said that the mission will be delayed because SpaceX will be focussing its effort on developing a new launcher with twice the thrust of Falcon Heavy. This is currently called the ‘Big Falcon Rocket’, but  I expect it it will be given a different name as the project progresses.

Therefore, I think that although this spaceflight will take place, it is unlikely to happen before 2020. However when it does occur I am sure that many people will follow it with great excitement. It will be the first time that humans have ventured outside the low Earth orbit since the last Apollo moon-flight in 1972.

Footnote – the Orion spacecraft

Even though NASA is now commissioning private companies to transport astronauts into low Earth orbit, it has not abandoned developing its own manned spacecraft altogether. It is currently developing the Orion spacecraft and a new launcher called the Space Launch System. Around 2023-5 the spacecraft is expected to take its first crew into orbit around the Earth, and it will have the capability take a crew of up to four beyond low Earth Orbit, perhaps on a mission around the Moon or to a nearby asteroid.


I hope you have enjoyed this post. To find out more about the Science Geek’s blog, click here or at the Science Geek Home link at the top of this page.


References

NASA (2014) NASA chooses American companies to transport U.S. astronauts to International Space Station, Available at: https://www.nasa.gov/press/2014/september/nasa-chooses-american-companies-to-transport-us-astronauts-to-international (Accessed: 7 February 2018).

The White House (2010) Remarks by the president on space exploration in the 21st century, Available at: https://www.nasa.gov/news/media/trans/obama_ksc_trans.html(Accessed: 6 February 2018).

 

Spaceport UK?

I was very pleased to hear a couple of weeks ago that the UK government plans to introduce a piece of legislation called the Modern Transport Bill.  This may not sound very exciting, but behind the uninspiring name is the intention to ultimately establish the UK’s first commercial spaceports, from which space tourists as well as scientists will be able to fly into space – perhaps within as little as a decade.  The costs of building will be funded by both central government and the commercial companies who would be using the facilities, and the project will not only boost the local economy of the area, through the creation of jobs and the income generation from future tourism, but would also raise its profile as a place of scientific importance.

The most likely company to be able to offer short suborbital spaceflights, from a spaceport UK is Virgin Galactic, formed in 2004 by the British entrepreneur Richard Branson.  As you may remember, Virgin Galactic’s ambitious plans suffered a serious setback in October 2014 when there was a fatal crash during a test flight.  However, this was caused by human error rather than a fundamental flaw in the design, and I think we can still assume that Virgin will be the first to offer ordinary (but rich!) non-scientists the chance to join the tiny elite group of human beings who have left the earth.

Virgin Galactic logo

What will the experience be like?

 

Long before their trip into space, the passengers will need extensive training to prepare them for the experience.  They will need to spend time in a flight simulator and learn how to cope in weightless conditions, to lessen the dangers inherent in the ultimate flight.

On the day, passengers will board the Virgin Galactic spacecraft SpaceShipTwo at the space port. SpaceShipTwo will be attached to a rather strange looking twin-hulled carrier aeroplane called WhiteKnightTwo.

WhiteKnightTwo

Image from Virgin Galactic

After take off, WhiteKnightTwo will steadily climb to an altitude of 51,000 feet (15.5 km). This is about 50% higher than the typical height which a commercial aeroplane reaches on a long flight. From this altitude passengers will notice that the sky overhead will be dark blue because there is so little atmosphere above them. Also, because they are so high up, they will be able to see significantly further than they can on a normal jet flight, a distance of around 440 km to the horizon.

When it reaches  an altitude of 15.5km SpaceShipTwo will separate from WhiteKnight Two, and its rocket motor will then ignite.

Virgin Galactic rocket motor

SpaceShipTwo accelerating into Space – Image from Virgin Galactic

When this happens, the passengers will immediately feel a very strong acceleration, or g-force, which will pin them back into their seats. The force will be around 3-g meaning that a human would, while the rocket motor is firing, weigh three times as much as they do on Earth, making it a great effort to move any part of their body. After only 70 seconds SpaceShipTwo will be travelling at 2,500 mph (4000 km/h). The rocket motor will then cut out and the passengers will suddenly go from being pinned to their seat by the strong g-force to being completely weightless.

They will be able to get out of their seats, float around the cabin, look out of the windows and take in the view. The spacecraft will continue to coast upwards, being slowed all the time by the Earth’s gravity. After a further two minutes it will cross the 100 km boundary which is defined as space (see previous post for more details on why 100 km is defined as the edge of space). Its peak altitude will be around 110 km. If the passengers look outside the window at this point they will notice that the sky will be black even though the sun is shining. This is because there is so little atmosphere above them. They will be able to see about 1200 km to the horizon, so if it were flying over London, passengers would be able to see the Orkney Islands, off the North cost of Scotland, out of the window on one side and Barcelona, in Northern Spain, on the other side.

After it reaches peak altitude the spacecraft will start falling back to Earth. Initially it will be in free fall but as it gets lower and lower and encounters traces of the Earth’s atmosphere, it will start to experience what is called ‘drag’, or friction, which will reduce the acceleration. The wings of the spacecraft, which are hinged, will tilt upwards, thus further increasing the drag and slowing the spacecraft down. The passengers will no longer be weightless and will need to safely get back into their seats, using the skills acquired in the pre-flight training.  When the spacecraft descends to an altitude of 15 km, the wings will tilt back to their normal position, which will make it more streamlined, reducing the drag. The spacecraft will continue to gradually descend, gliding back to land on the spaceport runway.

space ship two landing

SpaceShipTwo gliding back to Earth – image from Virgin Galactic

The whole experience from when SpaceShipTwo takes off, attached to WhiteKnightTwo, to landing on the runway will last around three hours. The passengers will be weightless for around five minutes and will spend roughly two minutes in space.

When will SpaceShipTwo take space tourists into space ?

The first commercial spaceflights will almost certainly be from the only existing space port in the world, Spaceport America in New Mexico (http://spaceportamerica.com), rather than any location in the UK. No date has been set for the first commercial flights.   To get a US Federal Aviation Administration licence to carry passengers above the 100 km line, it will need to have several test flights reaching its full speed and going above 100 km in altitude. No dates have been confirmed for these test flights, so I would not expect commercial spaceflights to happen before 2018.  Flights from the UK are unlikely before about 2030, in spite of what Richard Branson says!

How much will it cost?

On their website, http://www.virgingalactic.com, Virigin Galactic quote a price of $250,000, which must be paid in full and up front, just to secure a place on the waiting list. Passengers must be in reasonable health and fit enough to withstand the g-forces during the rapid acceleration. At this point there are already over 700 confirmed bookings, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Katy Perry among them.

I’m sure most of you will agree that this is a sky-high price tag for a three hour experience, even for the very rich. For a quarter of that cost you could travel around the world for 112 days and nights on the cruise ship Queen Mary 2, staying in the most luxurious cabin – with your very own private butler.

One reason why the price is so high is that Virgin Galactic need to recover their development costs of around $500,000,000. It is also a matter of supply and demand – the fact is that there are passengers able and willing to pay this amount, and initially Virgin Galactic will be the only company offering this service.  At the moment there is only one single SpaceShipTwo in existence, VSS Unity, which was being built when VSS Enterprise was destroyed during in October 2014.

VSS Unity

VSS Unity-Image from Virgin Galactic

The plan is to eventually have a fleet of five SpaceShipTwos, each of which will fly twice a day, from multiple locations around the world. When this happens – and as other companies enter the market – it is likely than the price will come down significantly. If Virgin Galactic were to charge $25,000 per ticket and to fly twice a day, 300 days a year, carrying six passengers, this would generate $450,000,000 in revenue. At this price a whole new market could open up and it might appeal to people of more limited means as the experience of a lifetime.

How safe is it ?

Going into space is a risky business, and the technology behind SpaceShipTwo is unproven. The Space Shuttle flew 135 missions between 1981 and its retirement in 2011, and two of those mission ended in failure – with the death of all of the crew. The chances of a shuttle astronaut being killed on a space flight was therefore around 1 in 67. Until the technology becomes more established it is impossible to say what the risks of flying in SpaceShipTwo, but they will certainly be far higher than travelling in a commercial jet airliner, where the risks of dying on an individual flight are around 1 in 10 million. The fact that one person has already died and another was seriously injured in the aforementioned disastrous test flight of 2014 has not deterred Richard Branson, who still insists that he and his family will be on the first commercial flight.  Sadly, I will not be joining them – not from fear, but from lack of the necessary funds!

And finally…

I hope you have enjoyed this post and once again would like to thank Mrs Geek for making it more intelligible!

The Science Geek

Space Tourism into Orbit and Beyond

Getting Into Orbit

Although Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is likely to be the first spacecraft to offer mass space tourism, it only offers space tourists a short hop into space for a few minutes. (See my previous post from 5 August “The Virgin Galactic Experience” for more information.) To remain in space, a spacecraft must travel at a speed fast enough to enable it to get into orbit Any slower and the Earth’s gravity will pull it back to Earth.  It must also reach an altitude high enough so that the spacecraft is not slowed down by friction due to traces of the upper atmosphere, causing it to spiral back down to Earth. Although the boundary of space is 100 km, the minimum altitude where a spacecraft can remain in orbit for 1 day before it is dragged back to Earth is 160 km. To stay in orbit at this altitude a spacecraft must reach a speed of 17.700 mph (28,500 km/h). It obviously takes a large powerful rocket to accelerate a spacecraft large enough to carry one or more astronauts, plus their supplies, to this speed and altitude.

Space Shuttle Lift Offjpg

The Space Shuttle lifting off. Image from NASA. To put 7 astronauts, plus up to 24 tonnes of equipment, into orbit its engines and the attached boosters produced a total of 6.8 million pounds of thrust at lift off. By comparison the rocket motor on SpaceShipTwo will produce only 60 thousand pounds of thrust.

Because of size of the rockets needed and the costs involved, the only spacecraft which have put humans in orbit have been launched by large government-funded programmes. Indeed, from the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, on 12 Apr 1961, until 30 June 2014 there have been only 293 manned space flights which have gone into Earth orbit or beyond. The numbers break down as follows

  • 126 launched by Russia/Soviet Union
  • 162 launched by the US
  • 5 launched by China.

8 of the Russian space flights have had space tourists aboard who paid between $20 million and $40 million for the trip.

Guy Laliberte

The French Canadian Guy Laliberte, founder of Cirque du Soleil, who paid $40 million for a 11 day trip into space in 2009. Image from NASA.

A New Approach

In a major speech in 2010 US president Obama announced a major shift in the function of NASA in American human space flight. To get to and from the International Space Station (ISS), the US would use  spacecraft and launchers designed, manufactured, and operated by private companies. Rather than build its own spacecraft to replace the shuttle, NASA would award grants to private companies to support research and development into human space flight. It would then provide further grants for companies to develop spacecraft capable of reaching low Earth orbit. NASA would select which company (or companies) to use to transport astronauts to and from the ISS and would buy seats on their spacecraft. Private companies would also be free to sell seats on their spacecraft to anyone else willing to pay the going rate.

Transport of astronauts to and from the space station by private companies will not start before 2017 at the earliest and, at the moment, NASA has not selected which company or companies to use. However the three finalists who were awarded funding of $1 billion between them to develop spacecraft cable of doing this job were:

  • Boeing
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation. This is a fast growing electronics and aerospace company owned by the husband and wife team of Erin and Fatih Ozmen who arrived in America from Turkey in the 1980s with little money and speaking limited English.
  • Space X.  This is a company set up by Elon Musk, the co-founder of Paypal. Pictured below

Elon Musk

Image from Wikimedia Commons -Uploaded by Corvette

Whichever of these companies wins the contract, transport of astronauts to and from the space station will only form part of their business. They will provide a orbital space tourism experience for customers willing to pay the price. For example, at a news conference in 2012, SpaceX indicated that their target launch price for crewed flights on their Dragon V2 was $140,000,000, or $20,000,000 per seat if the maximum crew of 7 is aboard, and if NASA orders at least four flights per year. In addition to the NASA contract, SpaceX could supply additional flights a year solely for space tourists willing to spend around $20 million to experience a week or so in orbit, perhaps with a brief stay of a few days in the ISS thrown in. This would be a very different experience from the short hop of a few minutes into space offered by Virgin Galactic.

DragonV2

 The Dragon V2 Spacecraft – Image from NASA 

Future of Orbital Space Tourism

In time, as more companies enter the market, thereby increasing the supply, and the technology become more established reducing the development costs the price of orbital space tourism should come down.  However there is still  the barrier, due to the basic laws of physics, that it takes an large amount energy to put a space capsule big enough to hold a number of humans, plus their essential supplies into orbit. This means that it can never become cheap in the way that air travel is today, but, perhaps, it  will be possible by 2045 to spend a week in space for equivalent of say $1-2 million in today’s money. Sadly this is well beyond the budget of Mr and Mrs Geek.

Next Post

I hope you have enjoyed this post. Mrs Geek and I are off on holiday to Scotland next week. When we return my next post will be about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, a subject which has fascinated me since childhood.

 

The Virgin Galactic Experience

The era of mass space tourism is about to begin.  Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is about to launch. It is based upon SpaceShipOne, which was an experimental spacecraft which won a $10 million dollar prize for being the first privately built spacecraft to travel to an altitude of 100 km.  This, as you may remember from my previous post, is the point at which space begins, according to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

What will the experience be like?

Passengers will board SpaceShipTwo at the purpose-built Spaceport America in New Mexico. SpaceShipTwo will be attached to a rather strange looking twin hulled carrier aeroplane called WhiteKnightTwo.

White Knight Two

Twin hulled WhiteKnightTwo on a test flight  – Image provided by Craig Boy. in a real flight SpaceShipTwo would sit between the two hulls. 

After take off, WhiteKnightTwo, will steadily climb to an altitude of 51,000 feet (15.5 km). This is about 50% higher than the typical height which a commercial aeroplane reaches on a long flight. From this altitude passengers will notice that the sky overhead will be dark blue because there is so little atmosphere above them. Also, because they are so high up, they will be able to see significantly further than they can on a normal jet flight, a distance of around 440 km to the horizon.

When it has safely reached 15.5km SpaceShipTwo will separate from WhiteKnight Two, and its rocket motor will then ignite.

Awaiting Image 

SpaceShipTwo Accelerating into Space

When this happens, the passengers will immediately feel a very strong acceleration, or g-force, which will pin them back into their seats. The force will be around 3-g meaning that a human would, while the rocket motor is firing, weigh three times a much as they do on earth, making it a great effort to move any part of their body. After only 70 seconds SpaceShipTwo will be travelling at 2,500 mph (4000 km/h). The rocket motor will then cut out and the passengers will suddenly go from being pinned to their seat by the strong g-force to being completely weightless.

 

They will be able to get out of their seats, float around the cabin, look out of the windows and take in the view. The spacecraft will continue to coast upwards, being slowed all the time by the Earth’s gravity. After a further two minutes it will cross the 100 km boundary into space. Its peak altitude will be around 110 km. If the passengers look outside the window at this point they will notice that the sky will be black even though the sun is shining. This is because there is so little atmosphere above them. They will be able to see about 1200 km to the horizon, so if it were flying over London passengers would be able to see the Orkney Islands, off the North cost of Scotland, out of the window on one side and Barcelona, in Northern Spain, on the other side. This particular scenario, however, is a very long way in the future, as of course the flights will be over New Mexico.

After it reaches peak altitude the spacecraft will start falling back to Earth.  Initially it will be in free fall but as it gets lower and lower and encounters traces of the Earth’s atmosphere, it will start to experience what is called ‘drag’, or friction, which will reduce the acceleration. The wings of the spacecraft, which are hinged, will tilt upwards, thus further increasing the drag and slowing the spacecraft down. The passengers will no longer be weightless but will be subject to a gradually increasing g-force. When the spacecraft descends to an altitude of 15 km, the wings will tilt back to their normal position, which will make it more streamlined, reducing the drag. The spacecraft will continue to gradually descend, gliding back to land on a runway.

Awaiting Approval to use Image 

SpaceShipTwo Landing

The whole experience from when SpaceShipTwo takes off, attached to WhiteKnightTwo, to landing on the runway will last around three hours. The passengers will be weightless for around five minutes and will spend roughly two minutes in space.

When will SpaceShipTwo take space tourists into space ?

No date has been set for the first commercial flight.  At the moment SpaceShipTwo has completed three test flights with a peak altitude of around 22 km. To get a US Federal Aviation Administration licence to carry passengers above the 100 km line, it will need to have several test flights reaching its full speed and going above 100 km in altitude. Although Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin group, said back in February that the first commercial flight would be later in 2014, I think that the probability of that happening is extremely small. It is much more likely to be in 2015 or 2016.

How much will it cost?

On their website, http://www.virgingalactic.com, Virigin Galactic quote a price of $250,000. Passengers must also be in reasonable health and fit enough to withstand the g-forces during the rapid acceleration. There are already over 600 confirmed bookings, each of whom have paid a $20,000 deposit – Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Katy Perry are among them.

I’m sure most of you will agree that this is a sky-high price tag for a three hour experience, even for the very rich. For a quarter of that cost you could travel around the world for 112 days and nights on the cruise ship Queen Mary 2, staying in the most luxurious cabin – with your very own private butler.

One reason why the price is so high is that Virgin Galactic need to recover their development costs of around $500,000,000. It is also a matter of supply and demand – the fact is that there are passengers able and willing to pay this amount, and initially Virgin Galactic will be the only company offering this service.  They eventually plan to have a fleet of five SpaceShipTwos, each of which will fly twice a day. When this happens – and as other companies enter the market – it is likely than the price will come down significantly. If Virgin Galactic were to charge $25,000 per ticket and to fly twice a day, 300 days a year, carrying six passengers, this would still generate $450,000,000 in revenue. At this price a whole new market could open up and it might appeal to people of more limited means as the experience of a lifetime.

Awaiting Image 

British Business woman Marsha Waters with Richard Branson when she became Virgin Galactic’s  600-th customer in 2013.

How Safe is it ?

Going into space is a risky business, and the technology behind SpaceShipTwo is unproven. The Space Shuttle flew 135 missions between 1981 and its retirement in 2011, and two of those mission ended in failure – with the death of all of the crew. The chances of a shuttle astronaut being killed on a space flight was therefore around 1 in 67. Until the technology becomes more established it is impossible to say what the risks of flying in SpaceShipTwo will be. However they will undoubtedly be far higher than travelling in a commercial jet airliner, where the risks of dying on an individual flight are around 1 in 10 million. As a vote of confidence in the safety of SpaceShipTwo, Richard Branson has said on many occasions that he and his family will fly on the first commercial flight.

Next Post 

SpaceShipTwo offers tourists a short hop just across the boundary of space for a few minutes. In my next post I will discuss in more detail the future of space tourism into orbit and beyond.