Spinoffs Expected From Suborbital Vehicle Work

Thedevelopment of commercial suborbital space vehicles should lead eventually tobusinesses such as commercial hypersonic point-to-point air travel and low-costlaunches to low Earth orbit, according to spaceship builders, venturecapitalists and other entrepreneurs who gathered here October 22-23 to takepart in the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight.

The key to making those businessesprofitable will be achieving safe, affordable and reliable access to space,Jeff Greason, president of XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif., said at the conference, which washosted by the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium. The privatesuborbital flight enterprise ?builds up the infrastructure we need to go dothe bigger and better things,? he added.

Space fordecades has been so expensive, so unreliable, so unsafe, making it extremelydifficult to do any reliable planning, Greason suggested. ?And we?ve known fordecades and decades and decades that the solution is you haveto have vehicles that can get you up and down into space with, perhaps notwith the reliability of current airplanes, but maybe more like the reliabilityof high-performance military aircraft.?

Thesuborbital market is critical, Greason continued, because it will whet the appetite forcompetitive vehicles ?to get bigger, better, higher and faster,? which willlead to orbital spacecraft.

?The only way we?re going to figureout how to do this stuff is to do it,? Greason said. XCOR has started buildinga two-seatsuborbital spaceship - dubbed Lynx - that will carry people or payloads.

Regarding the ability of start-upspace organizations that can be fleet-of-foot, contrasted to the sluggish andbureaucratic nature of traditional aerospace companies, Greason said: ?I see in a few people I know inthe larger companies a dawning recognition that, maybe instead of the dinosaursbuying the mammals and stomping on them, they should work with them. We canconquer whole new territories together.?

Hypersonic point-to-point

KevinBowcutt, chief scientist of hypersonics for the Boeing Company, took a longerview at affordable, routine and rapid point-to-point travel. ?It?s a quantumjump from Mach 3 suborbital flight ? to getting a third of the way around theworld,? he said. Work now is under way on suborbital vehicles that will helpvalidate markets, Bowcutt noted, and also get money and technology flowing toenable viable hypersonic vehicles in the future.

Bowcuttspotlighted a number of hypersonic vehicle projects, including Boeing?stechnical participation in the Hypersonic International Flight ResearchExperimentation (HIFiRE) program - a collaborative project involving Boeing,several Australian entities, as well as the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Constructingan ocean-hopping hypersonic craft is going to require an international effort,Bowcutt said. ?There is no real easy shortcut. It?s about 10 years and maybe$10 billion [as an initial research and development effort]. ? There is no one country ? there?sno one company ? that can take on the risk and the cost of developing ahypersonic point-to-point vehicle or an orbital system. So we?re going to haveto share this cost ? share the risk,? Bowcutt said, but doing so also would increase the market, headded.

?To getlong distances quickly and avoid sonic boom and heating issues - some of thattrajectory has to be suborbital and now you?re pushing up to Mach 10 and above.There?s just no way to get around that from a physics point-of-view,? Bowcuttsaid.

Changing space domain

PeterWegner, director of the OperationallyResponsive Space (ORS) Office at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M.,is keeping an eye on the emergence of private suborbital vehicles.

At the sametime the U.S. Department of Defense?s reliance on space capabilities isgrowing,?the space domain is changing, headded, noting that more than 40 countries are developing activespace programs that involve design, launch and operating spacecraft.

?Spaceprotection and robust space capabilities are becoming more and more important,?Wegner said. The ORS effort is aimed atreconstituting lost space capabilities or augmenting existing capabilities inthe event of a crisis to meet tactical needs.

The ORSOffice is taking on the challenge of meeting the critical needs of aJoint Force Commander in only a matter of days, Wegner said. One of the approaches will be thedevelopment of cubesat technologies - ultrasmall, low-cost, low-weightspacecraft innovations that are common to the personal laptop computerindustry, he emphasized.

Wegner toldSpace News that emerging suborbital tourist systems offer ?greatpotential? to his ORS efforts.

As example,the WhiteKnightTwocarrier plane, designed to tote to drop altitude the SpaceShipTwosuborbital passenger-carrying craft, could be used - sans SpaceShipTwo - as aflying launch pad for lofting rapid response satellites, Wegner noted.

?The trickis how do we take that space and put on a usable payload and then a rocketmotor that will accelerate [that payload] to orbital velocity,? Wegner said. ?Ithink we?ll get there ? but we?re not there at the moment. As these systemsmature and develop, I?m keeping a very close eye on what they are doing. It?ssort of one of these things where we are kind of on parallel paths, but wehaven?t collided yet.?

WhiteKnightTwo - first flight?

Meanwhile,work is progressing on the first flight of Scaled Composites? WhiteKnightTwoairplane at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif.

Accordingto Michael Blum, founder and managing director of Hong Kong-based Repulse BayCapital Ltd., the megaplane is being readiedfor its maiden takeoff.

Blum is aticket-holder for a future suborbital trek. He recently received an update onupcoming tests of the WhiteKnightTwo-SpaceShipTwo system from Virgin Galactic -the spaceliner operation bankrolled by lofty minded U.K. billionaire, RichardBranson.

Blum saidthat extensive ground testing of WhiteKnightTwo equipment has been carried outin Mojave, evaluations that have culminated in a recent high-speed taxi run.The first flight of the aircraft is anticipated in two to three weeks, he said.

Present projections point to the first voyage of SpaceShipTwo takingplace at the end of 2009, Blum said, with a minimum of 30 flights priorto a decision that the WhiteKnightTwo-SpaceShipTwosystem is ready to begin commercial operations.

?We all want to go as soon aspossible. But at the same time, I?m a strong advocate among the ticket-holdersof letting Scaled and Virgin do their job properly. We need a safe and reliablesystem,? Blum told conference attendees.

?We need tocommercialize space operations and human spaceflight. It?s extremely importantfor Virgin Galactic to end up being a successful venture. It would be catastrophicif the system were to be put into service too early ? and it would probably putsuborbital spaceflight on the back burner for the next couple of decades. Wecan?t afford that,? Blum said.

  • Video - SpaceShipTwo Revealed
  • Video - Flight of the Lynx: XCOR's Suborbital Rocketship
  • Future of Flight: Space Tourism, Investment and Technology


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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.