<p>The age of private spaceflight is almost upon us with a veritable fleet of new commercial spaceships rolling out to the launch pad. As NASA iconic space shuttles retire for good, here's a look at new private ships soon to be reality.</p> <p>— Tom Chao</p>
XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif. enters the suborbital spaceship business with a rocket-powered space plane called the Lynx. Rides aboard this small craft run $95,000, with only a pilot and one passenger aboard each flight. However, a fast turnaround time of two hours will compensate for the small cabin size, permitting up to four flights per day.
Chicago-based PlanetSpace, Inc. aims for orbital space trips, but could convert its space plane to a suborbital Earth transit system. Its Silver Dart space plane could be equipped with a suborbital rocket engine for point-to-point flights on the Earth. The space plane has a potential glide range of more than 25,000 miles (40,233 km) at hypersonic speeds. "A flight from New York to Paris in 20 minutes is not out of the question using that system," says PlanetSpace CEO Geoff Sheerin.
Excalibur Almaz Limited, based in the Isle of Man, acquired several of the former Soviet Union's Reusable Return Vehicles (RRVs), spacecraft designed for transporting cosmonauts to secret 1970s Almaz space stations. Excalibur Almaz has not quoted a price for a week-long trip, but plans to update the RRV spacecraft design with modern technology. The spacecraft consists of a cone-shaped RRV for launch and re-entry, and an expendable service module. The vehicles can carry three people, a commander and two passengers.
SpaceDev, a subsidiary of Sierra Nevada Corporation in Centennial, Colo. (which received $20 million from NASA in February 2010 under a commercial crew development competition), is developing Dream Chaser, a seven-person spacecraft designed to launch astronauts into space using an Atlas 5 rocket
Virginia-based tourism company Space Adventures plans to sell space tourist seats on new suborbital rocket ships developed by Armadillo Aerospace, a Texas company founded by computer game entrepreneur John Carmack. Armadillo's vertically-launched rocketship will take two passengers 62 miles (100 km) above the earth for $102,000, quite a bit less than the amount Space Adventures charges for a trip to the International Space Station.
Bigelow Aerospace in Las Vegas, Nevada, offers an unusual twist on space station design with Sundancer, a human-rated module that inflates in space. Multiple modules would combine to create a space complex, or even a moon base, capable of supporting three crew members. Bigelow has already launched two prototype modules, Genesis 1 and 2, which are unmanned but still in orbit today. The company has contracted with SpaceX to fly aboard a Falcon 9 in 2014.
Blue Origin, a space travel firm created by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, maintains relative secrecy in its Kent, Wash., facility. Few facts have escaped regarding the company's space capsule, the New Shepard suborbital vehicle, other than that it will consist of a pressurized crew capsule mounted atop a propulsion module to hurl experiments and astronauts up 75 miles (120 km). NASA has given Blue Origin $3.7 million to develop an astronaut escape system and build a composite space capsule prototype
Long-time satellite launcher Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Va., plans to enter the world of spaceflight with its advanced maneuvering spacecraft Cygnus. Launched aboard Orbital's Taurus 2 rocket, the cylindrical Cygnus freighter includes a pressurized cargo module that can carry up to 5,952 pounds (2,700 kg) of payload. Current designs are unmanned only, though Orbital holds a $1.9 billion contract with NASA for eight cargo flights to the International Space Station. Tests begin in 2011.
Well-known entrepreneur Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic company in New Mexico offer space tourists a chance to fly into suborbital space aboard SpaceShipTwo for the sum of $200,000. The WhiteKnightTwo airplane will carry SpaceShipTwo with two pilots and six passengers to an altitude of 50,000 feet (16 km), where SpaceShipTwo is released and its rocket engine fires to take it up to 68 miles (110 km). Captive carry test flights are under way.
Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., has produced the Falcon 9 rocket to launch its Dragon capsule, which may be configured to carry cargo or, later, crew to the International Space Station. The Dragon has been designed to support up to 7 passengers in crew configuration. The first test flights are set for 2010.