Out of the Blue, Into the Black

Commercial space travel is now almost within reach of ordinary citizens. But can small-a astronauts handle the ride?

By Sam Howe Verhovek|Wednesday, November 02, 2011
RELATED TAGS: SPACE FLIGHT
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SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo
Courtesy Spaceport America

Early one clear, still morning this past May, I slipped out of the funky old hot-springs town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and headed southeast into the high desert. As a reddish sky gave way to sunrise over the San Andres Mountains, I crossed a stretch of arid wilderness so harsh and unforgiving that 17th-century Spanish explorers called it the Jornada del Muerto: the Journey of the Dead Man. The bumpy country road wound deeper into the scrubland until at last an undulating shape appeared in the distance. As I got closer, I could see it was in fact a hangar, shaped a bit like a giant crab, built into a berm. Just beyond it, a tabletop-flat slab of concrete runway stretched for two miles. There, on an arid patch of land surrounded by ancient mesas, was my destination: Spaceport America, the world’s first complex built solely for commercial space exploration.

The day’s main event was the launch of a 20-foot-tall rocket owned by Colorado-based UP Aerospace, one of two permanent tenants at the state-run facility. Clouds of dirt, dust, and flames billowed out from beneath the craft as it lifted. No one was aboard, unless you count the cremated remains of about 20 people. Relatives of the dead had paid up to $1,295 so that a gram or more of their beloved’s ashes could take a ride aboard a rocket that briefly touched the face of the cosmos, peaking 73.5 miles above Earth, before dropping back down to the ground a half hour later. “Boomers want something that’s personal, that says something distinctive about the life they lived,” explains Charles M. Chafer, CEO of Celestis, a Houston company that brokers the unusual service by soliciting funeral directors around the country.

The rest of the rocket’s manifest was a collection worthy of a bazaar in Marrakech: wedding rings from Tokyo, Harley-Davidson pins from a local motorcycle dealer, and a flag from a Swedish high school, with room left over for a classified U.S. Air Force parcel and 27 student science experiments. One experiment tested the effects of electricity harnessed from mechanical vibrations on a New Mexican–grown chili pepper (not enough to cook it thoroughly, it turned out); another examined how high up a cell phone and a satellite phone could go before they stopped receiving text messages. Such is the offbeat nature of the emerging commercial spaceflight industry.

After it all whooshed into the clouds without incident, hundreds of schoolchildren cheered exuberantly, and UP Aerospace was celebrating its eighth successful launch in four years. The launch also marked a small victory for the politicians of New Mexico who created Spaceport America in 2004 with more than $200 million in taxpayer dollars as part of an ambitious plan to capitalize on new technology and stimulate economic growth. (Florida, California, Texas, and Oklahoma are also vying for a piece of the private space business.) UP Aerospace is the spaceport’s most active lessee, but state officials, who are now grappling with a projected $450 million shortfall for 2012, are pinning their investment hopes on the facility’s other, much bigger, and far more celebrated client. That would be Virgin Galactic (VG), the pet project of British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, whose nascent spaceliner may be just a year or two away from becoming the first private company to blast paying passengers into space.

Virgin Galactic occupies 110,000 square feet of the Spaceport America complex, half of which will form a hangar for five rocket ships (called SpaceShipTwo, or SS2) and a “mother ship” jet aircraft (WhiteKnightTwo). On a typical journey, the mother ship will take off from the runway and ferry SS2, carrying a two-pilot crew and six passengers, to a height of 50,000 feet. At that point, SS2 will break loose, start its own engines, and continue upward. Some 69 miles above Earth, in a darkening void, customers will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and gaze out the window at the curvature of their planetary home. After the fuel runs out and the craft reaches its apogee, it will essentially become a glider, sliding back toward the vast desert to touch down on the runway at Spaceport America. Inside the terminal, now half built, friends and loved ones of those who paid $200,000 each to slip the surly bonds of Earth will relax in a plasma TV–bedecked lounge with a view of the control room and launchpad and watch in real time.

Already more than 440 customers have plunked down a total of $57 million in deposits for a seat aboard Branson’s ship, lining up to make history and, in the process, turn America’s space policy upside down. With NASA’s announcement that the 30-year-old space shuttle program would end after the touchdown of Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center this summer, the iconic agency has, for now, abandoned the concept of government-built manned spacecraft. Over the next few years, American astronauts will be forced to hitch rides on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach the International Space Station (ISS). The agency’s plans to send humans to Mars or an asteroid are in deep freeze. And so, exactly 50 years after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly into space, there has never been a less exciting time to be an official, capital-A Astronaut, in the pioneering mold of an Alan Shepard or a Neil Armstrong. Yet at the same time, space travel has never been so within 
reach of private citizens—of people one might call, as Virgin Galactic does, small-a astronauts.

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A crew building SpaceShipTwo, the first commercial spaceliner, in Mojave, California.
Courtesy Virgin Galactic

“It is real. It is really real,” says George T. Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s chief executive officer. “Getting to space is hard, and regular trips have always seemed to be something that was going to happen way, way off in the future. It’s taken so long that I think a lot of people have thought, well, it’s always going to be something in the future. But it’s going to happen. And it’s going to happen soon.”

On the second floor of a onetime art gallery with blond wood floors in the Old Town section of Pasadena, Adam Wells describes in sweeping detail what the cabin of Virgin Galactic spaceships will not look like. “There is not too much in common with the airline experience,” Wells says. “This will be a very lean experience. So you have to think of it as a very different form of luxury, if indeed it’s luxury at all. I mean, we don’t have a restroom, a galley, or a flight attendant.” In-flight dining options will probably run the gamut from water to water. Wells is an acclaimed designer, much noted for the colorful, whimsical, and superluxurious upper-deck cabin he drew up for Virgin Atlantic’s Boeing 747 fleet. Now his job, working out of an office in Southern California, is to design every aspect of what a Virgin Galactic passenger will experience when commercial spaceflights begin, possibly as early as late next year.

Given that the entire cabin of SS2 is roughly the size of a small executive jet’s interior, with perhaps a little more overhead room to accommodate floating passengers, the seats will certainly not be anything like the lie-flat, supermassaging thrones that transoceanic business-class customers have come to expect. Think more like the seats in an F-16, bolted into a Spartan cabin: three rows, a seat on either side of the aisle and two windows per passenger, one to the side, the other overhead. Wells prefers an automotive metaphor. “It’s a bit more Ferrari than Rolls-Royce,” he says, but then adds a touch of British understatement: “It’s not as if the experience will be devoid of entertainment.”

People from 45 nations have signed up with Virgin Galactic, says Carolyn Wincer, an enthusiastic New Zealander whose Virgin Galactic business card identifies her as the company’s “head of astronaut sales.” Wincer was once sales manager for the Virgin brand’s Limited Edition, a portfolio of ultraluxury hotels and resorts. Today she works in New Mexico with high-end travel agents from around the world to sell spaceship trips, which will include accommodations in a luxury hotel close to Truth or Consequences, several days of preflight training, and lectures about space travel.

“If you’re selling a cruise, people don’t really care how the ship works,” Wincer says. “But if you’re selling galactic travel, people definitely do want to know.” Virgin Galactic passengers—or lowercase-a astronauts or whatever you want to call them—will be firmly strapped in their semireclined seats for much of the ride, especially during the descent, when the ride will be a stressful proposition no matter how well the craft performs. In the few minutes of weightlessness, passengers will be encouraged to shed their seat belts and float around. One of the many important aspects of preflight training will be to make sure that passengers are fully prepared for weightlessness, indeed, perhaps not even too excited about it. “If you are—if it’s your first sensation of weightlessness and that’s what you’re focusing on—you might miss the unbelievable view out the window,” Wells says.

Designers and engineers at Virgin are still working out aspects of the passenger experience, including whether some type of spacesuit or specialized headgear will be required, as well as protective ear covering during the rocket stage (after which there should be an eerie silence). The cabin will be pressurized; as on airline flights, oxygen masks will be for emergencies only. Passengers will need to be in decent shape but nothing too out of the ordinary, Wells says. Still, they will need to show they can withstand the fighter jet–like rigors (up to 6 g-forces) and sensations involved in leaving and reentering Earth’s pull. For that, many prospective VG passengers have already begun training in a suburban Philadelphia complex and aboard a specially modified Boeing 727-200 jetliner, known as G-Force One. Participants undergo near-weightlessness as the plane is flown in parabolic maneuvers that create temporary reduced gravity. The NASTAR Center and Zero Gravity, two private entities that jointly provide the service, say the experience is identical to that used by NASA in training its astronauts.

More subtly, passengers will need to demonstrate that they have the psychological stability to handle a trip to space without the sort of panic attack that could scuttle the mission. Wally Funk, one of the first people scheduled to go up in a Virgin Galactic spaceship, has no intention of flipping out. She has been on the company’s flight list for the last year but, in a wider sense, she has been waiting to make this trip for half a century. Funk, who lives just outside Fort Worth, Texas, was one of the Mercury 13, the 13 female pilots selected in the early 1960s for a slate of rigorous tests intended to qualify them for spaceflight. The program was never recognized by NASA and now, at the age of 72, Funk, a professional pilot, is still waiting.

“We never got the chance to prove ourselves, but we sure were ready,” Funk says. “I was dying to go. I excelled in all the tests.” Her desire to get to space remains as strong in 2011 as it was in 1961: “I want the freedom, I want the vision. I’ve been in the Concorde, I’ve seen the curvature of the Earth, the beginning of the darkness. I want more—I want to go up there.” Another passenger on Virgin’s waiting list is the wheelchair-bound physicist Stephen Hawking, who underwent weightlessness tests in a modified Boeing 727 owned by the Zero Gravity Corporation in 2007. Hawking said it was “amazing” to float free, however briefly. He is a passionate advocate of the private space industry and a firm believer in space travel as an insurance policy for our species. After his flight with Zero Gravity, Hawking told reporters that “the long-term survival of the human race requires that we spread into space.”

Fortunately the fate of humanity does not depend on the success of Virgin Galactic alone. Blue Origin, financed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, and Armadillo Aerospace, owned by John Carmack, whose company designed the megahit computer games Doom and Quake, are also developing passenger-carrying rocket ships, although they have not declared a time line for commercial launches. Elon Musk, the South African entrepreneur who became fantastically wealthy through the success of his online payment company, PayPal, has successfully tested several low-cost Falcon rockets, along with the Dragon space capsule. Musk’s rockets are ultimately intended to carry cargo and crew to the space station. Late last year his company, SpaceX, became the first private firm to successfully recover a spacecraft from Earth orbit, another big advance in its long-term bid to be the first company to carry astronauts to the ISS. Meanwhile, a company backed by Robert Bigelow, the mogul behind the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, has already launched two inflatable space habitats into orbit, in 2006 and 2007. These pumpkin-shaped modules are precursors to possible research labs or factories that could make products under weightless conditions. Bigelow’s company, which has reserved a payload spot for a future SpaceX launch, says its ultimate goal is to build a private space station, a sort of orbital strip mall, a place that could host driving ranges, hotels, or any number of other commercial ventures.

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Prospective tourists experience an altitude chamber at a training facility in Pennsylvania.
Courtesy NASTAR

This beehive of competition in the space industry helped inspire President Obama’s call for a radically new approach to space exploration. “We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history,” Obama said last year in a speech at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.” In Obama’s vision, entrepreneurial energy, aided by NASA grants, will unleash the creative genius needed to invent the technologies for future grand expeditions. Seen that way, Virgin Galactic’s craft, Musk’s rockets, and Bigelow’s capsules are examples of such ingenuity at work.

Critics—including the entire congressional delegation from Florida, along with Harrison Schmitt and other former astronauts—dismiss the president’s vision as a canard that will merely cut the sort of pioneering, complex space research that needs significant government investment and defer the great extraterrestrial journeys by a decade or more. “President Obama has once again marginalized America’s preeminence in human spaceflight, as well as the American taxpayer, for the benefit of his climate research programs,” said Representative Pete Olson of Texas when Obama released his proposed NASA budget earlier this year.

NASA and its administrator, Charles Bolden, insist that the dependence on Soviet-developed spacecraft is only a stopgap. “We’re committed to safely transporting U.S. astronauts on American-made spacecraft and ending the outsourcing of this work to foreign governments,” Bolden said last year as he announced payments of up to $92 million to four companies, including Blue Origin and Boeing, that are working on commercial space-crew vehicles. Those agreements, Bolden added, were “significant milestones in NASA’s plans to take advantage of American ingenuity to get to low-Earth orbit, so we can concentrate our resources on deep-space exploration.”

Beyond the question of whether there are enough investment dollars to support this radical shift in space exploration, there is the practical matter of continued determination in the face of accidents. Three U.S. Apollo astronauts died in a launchpad fire in 1967, the Soviet Soyuz program had two fatal accidents, and the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters together killed 14 people. Each of those programs secured continued government funding and eventually achieved fantastic successes. But when private space entrepreneurs encounter such setbacks, they may not be able to recover so easily. There has already been at least one tragedy: In 2007 three employees of Scaled Composites, the manufacturer of Virgin’s spacecraft, were killed and three injured in an explosion during the test of a rocket oxidizer at the company’s facility in Mojave, California. What happens, some critics ask, if tragedy befalls a passenger flight? Will investors stick with space tourism? Will passengers?

Such safety-related questions loom large over the industry and inject a note of caution into any projected timetable for human spaceflight. During the past year and a half, Scaled Composites has completed successful test flights involving both the mother-ship drop and SS2’s use of what its creator, Burt Rutan, soothingly calls “feathering,” an ingenious wing-raising aerodynamic maneuver that softens its potentially violent reentry into the atmosphere. Yet Virgin refuses to promise when SS2 will begin carrying passengers. Company officials say they do not want to pressure engineers and pilots into meeting a deadline. “We’re close. But safety is paramount,” Whitesides says. “We have to get this right. We are very, very conscious of that responsibility. It matters to us and it matters to anyone else who plans to be in this field.”

Whitesides knows that an accident could knock the industry back by years, scaring off customers and making insurance expensive or unattainable. It could also have a psychological ripple effect: A key part of NASA’s current calculation is that a successful space tourism business will reignite the average citizen’s interest in venturing beyond Earth’s atmosphere. A fatal or even near-fatal incident could derail NASA just as much as the space-tourism industry. That risk puts the federal government in the delicate position of trying to foster and encourage U.S. preeminence in space exploration while also certifying that it is safe, or safe enough. “This is a risky business, but we want U.S. industry to be a world leader in this area,” says George Nield, the associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration. “We want to do everything we can to make it safe, but there may be accidents. We’re doing this with our eyes wide open.”

The FAA has licensed more than 200 unmanned commercial launches in the past 20 years, many for satellites, but licensing of manned rockets–a field hitherto overseen entirely by NASA–is a far more complex endeavor. For passenger flights, the FAA is trying to develop the right regulatory framework for an industry that is not yet operating. The problem is broadly analogous to earlier regulations developed to cover jet travel in the 1950s, only this time the government is following a more aggressive path. In 2004 the FAA granted clearance to Scaled Composites to launch its experimental rocket craft, SpaceShipOne, the precursor to Virgin Galactic’s fleet, into suborbit. Later that year, when the company won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for becoming the first commercial organization to launch a reusable, manned rocket ship into space twice within a two-week period, Congress approved a phased approach to regulations for private manned spaceflight, a move that was intended to encourage investment in the field. Currently the FAA has set in place only a handful of rules, stipulated by the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 (pdf). Most of them are obvious: mandatory training and medical evaluations for passengers and crew, full disclosure of all risk to passengers, and successful preflight testing.

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Artist's sketch of Spaceport America.
Courtesy Spaceport America

The FAA must also consider collateral damage. Commercial manned spaceflights should pose minimal risk to people on the ground or in airplanes, since those people “did not sign up for the risk,” Nield says. That is one reason why Spaceport America is in such a remote location, adjacent to a federal missile range, which already has restricted airspace. But what is an acceptable level of risk for paying passengers, especially if they have signed disclaimers? “Well, that’s the question,” says Nield. “It’s complicated. There have been 134 launches of the shuttle, and there were two fatal accidents. That’s a rate of 1 in 67. Now, is that good enough? No. That sounds pretty dangerous, and it is. We would not allow that.”

On the other hand, no one stepping aboard a newly developed rocket ship can realistically expect a level of risk as low as that of commercial air travel. Arnold Barnett of MIT, one of the world’s top authorities on aviation safety, calculates the odds of dying on a U.S. domestic jet flight at 1 in 30 million. “We want to get to a point where spaceflight is more like aircraft travel, but we’re a long way from that,” Nield concedes. “We’re not going to wait until these things are a 100 percent guarantee before we are going to allow people to accept the risk and go along.”

At first, commercial spaceflight will draw big names and big headlines. Tom Hanks and Angelina Jolie are two of the more noted figures on a widely circulated roster of rumored passengers, although Virgin Galactic will not confirm whether they are indeed on the official list. The real question is what happens after that: What happens for the rest of us? Virgin or a competitor might wind up selling lottery tickets: $50 or $100, say, for a shot at a seat. The price will undoubtedly drop as the technology improves. In not too many years it is conceivable that a sad little scene will play out around the kitchen tables in some American homes: “Sorry, kids, we’re not going to Disney World this year … Daddy’s going to fly in a spaceship!”

Another possible benefit of the private space boom could occur closer to home. Rocket-boosted aircraft, spun off from some future industry breakthrough, might enable passengers to blast into suborbit, skim above the stratosphere at hypersonic speeds, and make the trip from New York to Sydney or Tokyo in just a few hours. Perhaps space tourism and brief joyrides will be the lesser part of the industry; in the longer term, commercial spacecraft may help us discover minerals or other resources with now-unimaginable properties, or to found colonies that will serve, in the vision of Stephen Hawking, as the ultimate insurance policy for our species. “We’re about to see a rapid increase in different parts of the industry, whether it’s space tourism or commercial involvement to allow NASA to get lower-cost transportation to low-Earth orbit,” Nield told the House space subcommittee at a hearing in May.

The future of space tourism may be uncertain, but history suggests that some kind of adventure space travel is nearly inevitable. The parallels between today’s space entrepreneurs and the pioneers of flight a century ago are hard to ignore. Both met with considerable skepticism and even ridicule at the outset. Not long after aviation’s founders showed that flight was possible, the enterprise was widely dismissed as joyriding for the superwealthy. But just as those early thrill seekers presumably did not have a vision of the Boeing 747 to come, the travelers who are waiting to go to space say their excursions are a part of a much more profound, if unknowable, enterprise.

“This is only the beginning,” says prospective passenger Marcia Fiamengo, a nuclear engineer and COO of the Federation of Galaxy Explorers, an educational group. “This is the gateway to something bigger, a paradigm shift in the way we travel and the way we see our planet. So if you truly believe in it, why wouldn’t you want to be a part of it? It’s a way to put your money where your mouth is.”

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