Aerospace Travel: Los Angeles to Tokyo in One Hour

spaceshiptwo_flightGiven my busy schedule of late, some stories have been sitting in my stack for some time and I haven’t been able to write about them. But one’s like this are too cool to pass up, so here’s a belated acknowledgement. It seems that Virgin Galactic, having now demonstrated its ability to conduct aerospace tourism, has decided to enter into phase two of its plans for the future: aerospace travel!

In the scenario they are proposing, their planes would fly customers from Los Angeles to Tokyo, and the transit would take one hour. The takeoff system would be similar to the midair launch the company uses now with the SpaceShipTwo. Basically, a large plane flies the spacecraft off the ground, drops it in midair, a hybrid rocket engine ignites, and the spacecraft ascends into lower orbit.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2A system like this would allow patrons to fly from the West Coast to Japan in an hour, or from the United Kingdom to Australia in two hours. This is according to statements made by Virgin Galactic’s CEO, George Whitesides, back in September at a company event at New York City’s Museum of Natural History:

You can imagine a SpaceShipThree or a SpaceShipFour going outside the atmosphere, then coming back down outside an urban area and landing. We don’t have to accept the status quo. We can imagine a vehicle using liquid oxygen or liquid hydrogen to get us across the Pacific in an hour. You could do that.

For those following Branson’s exploits, this announcement should come as no surprise. For years, he has been attempting to create a supersonic airline of his own. But when a paradigm-shifting idea like “point-to-point suborbital space transportation” becomes possible, he began to sets his sights a little higher (so to speak).

Spaceshiptwo-580x256Naturally, there are a few things that need to be worked out and tested before that’s possible, but it’s entirely within the realm of possibility. In fact, the European Space Agency has been researching the idea and claimed that SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo are the most promising space launch mechanisms they’ve seen to date.

Naturally, there is the nagging question of cost. If aerospace travel does become feasible, who exactly will be able to afford it? So far, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spaceflight have attracted hundreds of customers, but at a cost of $250,000 per head. It seems unlikely that these same people would pay a quarter of a million dollars just to travel halfway around the world. And some experts maintain that the industry will fail strictly because of the costs involved.

space-trip-klmDerek Webber, is one such person. As the executive director of Spaceport Associates, he wrote a paper in 2008 that explored the idea:

Credible market studies have not been done, or at least published. The optimum technical design has not been established. The ground infrastructure is not in place… Price levels are uncertain. It is not even clear whether such flights are best characterized as tourism or as transportation; whether the passengers would be primarily tourists or business persons on urgent trips.

Nevertheless, these doubts are doing nothing to stem the flow of investment and research being made by aerospace organizations and companies. For years, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines – the national air carrier of the Netherlands – has been developing a rocket-powered sub-orbital craft of its own. California-based XCOR Aerospace also has the Lynx – a hypersonic plane that could fly between New York and Tokyo in just 90 minutes.

XCORReaction Engines Limited is also developing the Skylon hypersonic engine for commercial spacecraft, much in the same way that Boeing and NASA are  developing the X-37B space plane. While these efforts are aimed at creating reusable spacecraft that could deploy satellites and deliver crew and supplies into orbit, they are also laying the groundwork for commercial transportation that takes people into orbit.

Meanwhile, DARPA and the US Marine Corps have been working on developing their own point-to-point rockets for delivering supplies and people for roughly a decade now and the Federal Aviation Administration’s 2010 report noted that:

[the] potential for the rapid global transport of passengers and the fast distribution of goods and services make point-to-point transportation an attractive space technology concept worth exploiting.

So while a price breakdown may be lacking, and the expected costs limiting, the technology is still in its infancy and it seems likely that the future of transportation lies in space. Beyond rapid transit and space tourism, it may very well be how airlines ferry people to and from their destinations in the not-too-distant future.


News from Space: We’re Going to Mars!

marsAs part of their desire to once again conduct launches into space from US soil, NASA recently awarded commercial space contracts worth $6.8 billion to Boeing and SpaceX. But beyond restoring indigenous spaceflight capability, NASA’s long-term aim is clearly getting a manned mission to Mars by 2030. And in assigning the necessary money to the companies and visionaries willing to help make it happen, they just might succeed.

As per the agreement, Boeing will receive $4.2 billion to finance the completion of the CST-100 spacecraft, and for up to six launches. Meanwhile, SpaceX is receiving $2.6 billion for its manned Dragon V2 capsule, and for up to six launches. NASA expressed excitement its collaboration with both companies, as it frees the agency up for bigger projects — such the development of its own Space Launch System (SLS).

elon-musk-on-mars-curiosity-self-640x353One person who is sure to be excited about all this is Elon Musk, SpaceX founder, CEO, and  private space visionary. With this big infusion of cash, he has apparently decided that it’s time to bring his plans for Mars forward. Ever since 2007, Musk has indicated a desire to see his company mount a manned mission to Mars, and now he may finally have the resources and clout to make it happen.

These plans include flying astronauts to Mars by 2026, almost a decade before NASA thinks it will. By late 2012, he even spoke about building a Mars Colony with a population in the tens of thousands, most likely established sometime during the 2020’s. As of this past year, he has also revealed details about a Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT), an interplanetary taxi that would be capable of ferrying 100 people at a time to the surface.

Fan art concept of the MCT
Fan concept art of the MCT

And then in February of this year, SpaceX began developing the MCT’s engines. Known as the Raptor, this new breed of large engine reportedly has six times the thrust of the Merlin engines that power the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. Now that the company has the financial resources to dream big, perhaps the MCT might move from the development stage to prototype creation.

And there is certainly no shortage of desire when it comes to sending people to the Red Planet. Together with Mars Society president Robert Zubrin, and Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp, crowdfunded organizations are also on board for a manned mission. The case for settling it, which Musk himself endorses, is a good one – namely, that planting the seed of humanity on other worlds is the best way to ensure its survival. 

Earth_Mars_ComparisonAnd as Musk has stated many times now, a manned mission Mars is the reason there is a SpaceX. Back in 2001, while perusing NASA’s website, he was perturbed to find that the space agency had nothing in the way of plans for a mission to Mars. And the best time to go is probably in about 15 or 20 years, since Mars will be at its closes to Earth by then – some 58 million kilometers (36 million miles).

During this window of opportunity, the travel time between Earth and Mars will be measured in terms of months rather than years. This makes it the opportune time to send the first wave of manned spacecraft, be they two-way missions involving research crews, or one-way missions involving permanent settlers. Surprisingly, there’s no shortage of people willing to volunteer for the latter.

Mars_one1When Mars One posted its signup list for their proposed mission (which is slated for 2025), they quickly drew over 200,000 applicants. And this was in spite of the fact that the most pertinent details, like how they are going to get them there, remained unresolved. Inspiration Mars, which seeks to send a couple on a round trip to Mars by 2021, is similarly receiving plenty of interest despite that they are still years away from figuring out all the angles.

In short, there is no shortage of people or companies eager to send a crewed spaceship to Mars, and federal agencies aren’t the only ones with the resources to dream big anymore. And it seems that the technology is keeping pace with interest and providing the means. With the necessary funding now secured, at least for the time being, it looks like the dream may finally be within our grasp.

Though it has yet to become a reality, it looks like the first Martians will actually come from Earth.

Sources:, (2),

News from Aerospace: XS-1 Experimental Spaceplane

northrop-grumman-xs-1-spaceplaneThe race to produce a new era or reusable and cost-effective spacecraft has been turning out some rather creative and interesting designs. DARPA’s XS-1 Spaceplane is certainly no exception. Developed by Northrop Grumman, in partnership with Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, this vehicle is a major step towards producing launch systems that will dramatically reduce the costs of getting into orbit.

Key to DARPA’s vision is to develop a space-delivery system for the US military that will restore the ability of the US to deploy military satellites ingeniously. In a rather ambitious twist, they want a vehicle that can be launched 10 times over a 10-day period, fly in a suborbital trajectory at speeds in excess of Mach 10, release a satellite launch vehicle while in flight, and reduce the cost of putting a payload into orbit to US$5 million (a tenth of the current cost).

XS-1_1Under DARPA contracts, Boeing, Masten Space Systems, and Northrop Grumman are working on their own versions of the spaceplane. The Northrop plan is to employ a reusable spaceplane booster that, when coupled with an expendable upper stage, can send a 1360 kgs (3,000 pounds) spacecraft into low Earth orbit. By comping reusable boosters with aircraft-like operations on landing, a more cost-effective and resilient spacecraft results.

In flight, the Northrop version of the XS-1 will take advantage of the company’s experience in unmanned aircraft to use a highly autonomous flight system and will release an expendable upper stage, which takes the final payload into orbit. While this is happening, the XS-1 will fly back to base and land on a standard runway like a conventional aircraft, refuel, and reload for the next deployment.

Spaceshiptwo-580x256Northrop is working under a $3.9 million phase one contract with DARPA to produce a design and flight demonstration plan that will allow the XS-1 to not only act as a space launcher, but as a testbed for next-generation hypersonic aircraft. Meanwhile Scaled Composites, based in Mojave, will be in charge of fabrication and assembly while Virgin Galactic will handle commercial spaceplane operations and transition.

Doug Young, the vice president of missile defense and advanced missions at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, had this to say about the collaboration:

Our team is uniquely qualified to meet DARPA’s XS-1 operational system goals, having built and transitioned many developmental systems to operational use, including our current work on the world’s only commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. We plan to bundle proven technologies into our concept that we developed during related projects for DARPA, NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, giving the government maximum return on those investments.

space_elevator2Regardless of which contractor’s design bears fruit, the future of space exploration is clear. In addition to focusing on cutting costs and reusability, it will depend heavily upon public and private sector collaboration. As private space companies grab a larger share of the space tourism and shipping market, they will be called upon to help pick up the slack, and lend their expertise to more ambitious projects.

Examples abound, from putting satellites, supplies and astronauts into orbit, to landing settlers on Mars itself. And who knows? In the foreseeable future, NASA, Russia, China, the ESA and Japan may also be working hand-in-hand with transport and energy companies to make space-based solar power and a space elevator a reality!