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Astrium: Spaceplane Planned for Space Tourism

Astrium is an aerospace subsidiary of European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS). Astrium is involved in a number of space projects that range from Ariane rockets to the Columbus module of the International Space Station.

In private spaceflight, however, the company is working on Spaceplane, which is intended to take four people to 100 kilometers (62 miles) above Earth. Unlike many other space ventures, the company ambitiously promises that the plane will take off and land from a runway – not vertically like a traditional rocket.

The company officially unveiled its plans in 2007, and has picked up some investor interest since then. As of early 2013, Astrium has not disclosed an anticipated start date for when it will bring tourists into space.

Meanwhile, parent firm EADS is planning restructuring that could affect the direction of the company in future years, although it's too soon to foretell the impact on individual projects such as Spaceplane.

Experience in crew vehicles

In a crowded space tourism field, Astrium is a bit of an anomaly. The typical private spaceflight company is started by a wealthy entrepreneur, such as Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson, Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk from Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX).

The entrepreneurs typically harbor long-held dreams of spaceflight, but make their fortunes in other fields before venturing into space. Astrium's tourism ambitions, however, are presumably assisted by the firm's considerable other aerospace ventures.

"There are those who think you can design a rocket plane in a garage," Astrium's Robert Laine, the company's chief technical officer, said in 2007. "Suffice it to say that that is not our niche."

The company's business principally focuses on three integrated segments: satellites, space transportation and services. The space transportation segment is well-known for the Ariane rocket that has brought dozens of satellites into space.

Astrium is also the prime contractor for the European Space Agency's ATV, an unmanned spacecraft that brings cargo to the International Space Station. Astrium also runs the station's Columbus module.

In 2005 – prior to announcing the space plane, Astrium was revealed as a collaborator on Lockheed Martin's Crew Exploration Vehicle project to develop a next-generation space vehicle for NASA to succeed the shuttle. Now known as Orion, NASA aims to get an unmanned vehicle into space around 2014.

Spaceplane plans

In June 2007, Astrium revealed its plans to start up the Spaceplane, as the project is called. At the time, company officials stated confidence that space tourism will become a multi-billion dollar industry in the next two decades.

The company's website states that the process of development is expected to take a long time. Developing the aircraft and certifying it will take until at least 2014, the company stated in 2010. It did not provide any time frame for test flights or the first operational journeys into space.

"The Spaceplane will be designed to take off and land in civil airports, just like an Airbus carrying passengers," Astrium stated.

"It will therefore have to comply with the long list of requirements specific to commercial aircraft, as a forerunner in the realm of ultra-fast air transport. The road ahead is long, but it paves the way to what can only be described as a truly ‘star’-studded dream."

The company expects its passengers will experience up to three to five minutes of "weightlessness" at the apex of its flight into space, which is a vast improvement on the approximate 20 seconds that passengers experience on a parabolic flight on Earth.

The longer microgravity phase opens the door to low-cost research in space, which will provide another revenue stream for Astrium, the company has said. The company also plans to configure the spacecraft to send small satellites into orbit.

Searching for co-investors

When Spaceplane was revealed in 2007, the company said a typical flight would ignite the rocket engine at 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) above Earth, which would bring the vehicle through the atmosphere until it makes it to a maximum of 62 miles (100 kilometers).

At 90 minutes' round trip, the plane would carry four passengers at a price of 200,000 euros ($267,000) apiece. The company estimated it could carry up to 4,500 passengers a year by the year 2020, bringing in gross revenues of $1.2 billion in dollars unadjusted for inflation.

At the time, Astrium officials said the firm was looking for co-investors and was also prepared to put some of its own money into the project. The amount Astrium was prepared to spend was not disclosed, with the company saying only co-investors would be privy to the business plan.

The company has kept development milestones fairly quiet over the years, but the Spaceplane was still being advertised in aerospace shows as of mid-2012.

The recent global economic crisis, the BBC reported in 2011, delayed some of the work on the plane.

"We keep the investment going," said Astrium CEO François Auque in the report. The company was quoted as saying they had done development on the rocket engine, and aerodynamic wind tunnel testing.

"We continue to mature the concept, maintaining the minimum team, in order that when we find the relevant partnership we are ready and have progressed sufficiently," Auque said in the BBC report.

As of June 2011, a consortium of Singapore companies had joined the development team, according to a Flightglobal report. At the time, Astrium officials said they were seeking more partners before establishing the project commercially.

Meanwhile, changes are afoot in Astrium's parent company, EADS, but it's too early to evaluate the proposals on the status of projects such as Spaceplane. The firm announced a plan for restructuring in late 2012.

Current stakeholders Daimler AG and Lagardère SCA plan to reduce their holdings, while entities in Germany and France plan to increase their stake in the firm. EADS will also buy back some of its shares and seek a new chair. Company shareholders are expected to vote on the plan in the first quarter of 2013.

According to media reports, the goal of EADS in the restructuring is to reduce the power of individual nations within its voting structure to encourage orders from other countries.

— Elizabeth Howell, SPACE.com Contributor

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