The Future of Private Space Travel

Space shuttle night launchCredit: Wikipedia

When I was a kid, I used to dream of growing up and becoming an astronaut. What American child born after 1960 didn’t? However, unlike other children that forgot about the idea about the time they reached grade school, I still wanted to be an astronaut when I graduated from high school. My plan at the time was to join the US Air Force, become a test pilot, and then eventually an astronaut. The only reason I gave up on this dream was because I developed a heart condition during my first year of college that disqualifies me from flying (and flying into space for NASA). Luckily, there’s still hope for me and you to get to space someday!

Government-Funded Space Travel

Up until very recently, space travel was entirely in the realm of national governments that could throw billions of dollars at their space programs (in some cases simply to prove to other countries that they could). In order to go to space, you had to become an astronaut through your countries space program. The vast majority of these positions were (and are currently) filled by tough military test pilots, scientists, and the occasional tourist that have enough cash to wave under the governments nose. The situation of space travel is on the brink of a dramatic change.

Civilian Space Travel

In the past decade or so, there have been many huge advances in technology and research that have made space travel within the reach of civilians. Let’s start off with a very brief history of recent breakthroughs in private space travel:

  • April 12, 1961: First Man in Space – Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin travels into space. This is just the beginning of space travel for humans. Over the next decade, mankind will set foot on the moon and create several space stations that orbit the earth and are capable of sustaining life in space for more than a year at a time.
  • 1996: Ansari X PRIZE Announced – The Ansari family sponsors a $10 Million reward to the first person (or team) that could build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying 3 people to 100 kilometers above the earth’s surface. To prove the repeatability of their ship, the teams had to accomplish this feat twice in two weeks.[1892]
  • Scaled Composite's SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X PRIZECredit: WikipediaOctober 4, 2004: X PRIZE Claimed – Scaled Composites, a company led by the famous airplane designer Burt Ruttan, claimed the X PRIZE completing the two space flights in SpaceShipOne (their custom spaceship). Space travel was no longer an exclusive club for big governments.

Spaceport America

What if I told you that there is a Spaceport, built for the sole purpose of civilian space travel open right now in America? Would you believe me?

Spaceport America with SpaceShipTwo flying aboveWell it really doesn’t matter if you do or not, because it’s true. Spaceport America[1891] is already open in the New Mexico desert and already made twelve launches from their vertical launch area since 2006. It’s a public spaceport (like an airport, but for space) owned by the state of New Mexico. It has recruited some big companies in the civilian space industry such as Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic, and Lockheed Martin.

So When Do I Get to Go to Space?

We’re very close to commercial flights to space. There are still a few things waiting to be finished, but we’re closer than many think. Let’s quickly review where we’re at and how much further we have to go:

  1. Spaceships – Civilians have successfully launched a spacecraft into “space” but have not yet orbited the earth. That’s the next big step and it’s still several years away. The higher you go up, the more expensive and difficult it is to shoot something heavy up there. But that’s okay because you’ll get to experience that one day, and in the mean-time take sub-orbital flights to space. 
  2. Spaceport – In order to launch and land spaceships, you need a spaceport. We’ve already talked about Spaceport America. How close is it to being finished? Pretty close. Spaceport America was officially declared to be open on October 18, 2011. Eight sub-orbital missions have already been successfully launched from Spaceport America[1890]. The infrastructure is already there, they’re just putting the finishing touches on it.

So we (almost) have the two basic things we need to get civilian customers into space. Who’s going to take us?

Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic is a company that is planning on providing sub-orbital (and eventually orbital) spaceflights to customers in the near future. They’re based at Spaceport America and hope to begin these paid flights in the near future. A sub-orbital flight would consist 3.5 hours of flight time and about 6 minutes of weightlessness at the peak of the flight. At the time of this writing, there are already over 400 people that have already signed up for a trip.

How much does it cost? Currently, sub-orbital flights are priced at $200,000 (secured with a $20,000 deposit). Yes, I know – this is still way out of my budget (and probably yours). But remember that there was once a time when only a few people in the world could claim that they had flown in an airplane. Although space travel will never be as cheap as simple air travel, it will one day be significantly cheaper than it is now. New rocket technology in the future will help bring down the cost of lobbing heavy objects into space, and new materials will make spaceships lighter and stronger.

Almost There!

Lockheed Martin X-33 VentureStar commercial spaceshipSo we have spaceships, a spaceport, and a company to take us to space. Soon everyone will have the opportunity to travel to space at some point in their lifetime. One day, travelling to space will be an everyday occurrence, and no longer a reason for concern or big news coverage. Once we get there, what’s next? Thousands of people today build their own airplanes. In the future, will we see individuals building their own spacecraft? For decades, science fiction writers and some engineers and scientists have talked about building a commercial space station is earth orbit. Will we one day be able to take a two-week vacation in space, or on another planet such as the moon? Only time will tell.

One thing’s for sure – someday this guy is going to make it there!

Spaceport America, New Mexico

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