Development of New Space Vehicles for Space Tourism

Abstract

The first step to achieving space tourism is the development of trans-atmospheric vehicles. The initiation of public space travel is a new application of the aerospace heritage that is hesitant, despite its potential to become a market size in billions of dollars. At the same time, space tourism is expected to increase the number of launch numbers including telecommunications and other applications satellites, in the next 100 years.

The personal involvement of the public in space developments is likely to generate significant spin-off benefits to the space program. This will lead to reduced costs of orbiting due to economies of scale in vehicle manufacture and operation. This paper looks at the history and likely future of public space travel, by looking at the technical aspects, terrestrial infrastructure, packaging and insurance issues, among others. The paper also looks at the two opportunities being developed as initial offerings of space tourism and the interest of the public in the two, namely sub-orbital and orbital flights (Abitzsch, 1996).

Introduction

There has been increased interest in the possibilities of space tourism among engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs and the public, for the past few decades. There have been similar increased interests in reusable launch vehicles, space habitats, space entertainment and the corresponding law and regulation. From the research conducted, there is substantial interest in tourist space travel to take off and grow into a billion dollar business. One of the reasons for the enthusiasm for space travel is the attractiveness of being in space. Being in space is seen as being equal to taking an exclusive luxury cruise ship business, in that both experiences demand huge investments. Most people appreciate the thrill of doing something unusual (Collins, 2000).

Public space travel could become a dominant sector in space business, in the next century or so. The new industry of space tourism is likely to bring about certain changes including the renewed involvement of the public in space possibilities and the increased interest in math and science in the education system. Studies have shown that tourism is now the largest business enterprise in the world. This implies that tourism overtook defence, oil and manufacturing industries, due to its rapid growth, leading to increased employment opportunities in that sector (Collins, 2000).

Early history

The first powered flight was made possible by the Wright brothers in December, 1903, and the first passenger flew two years later. In 1927, a flight was possible across the Atlantic Ocean, and in 1942, rocket technology made the flight of the V2 possible. In 1969, two people were able to go to the moon, and set foot on it. There are numerous differences in the production of sub-orbital passenger vehicles and orbital vehicles. These differences include: lower cost of production, lower technical risk, lesser propulsive energy and smaller re-entry heating and stress for the sub-orbital passenger vehicle.

This implies that the construction of sub-orbital passenger vehicles does not require fragile ceramic tiles for thermal protection. In addition to this, their bodies can be made from the usual aerospace metals and can be flown to and fro repeatedly. As a result of their cheap production, they can be easily produced by private investors. Low cost sub-orbital vehicles are likely to be on the rise due to increased competition among manufacturer companies whose interest in commercial space travel has risen. Like the aircraft industry an increase in the number of companies involved in production of sub-orbital passenger vehicles will lead to competition, which is good for increasing safety, profitability and rapid growth of space tourism (Abitzsch, 1996).

Development of suborbital vehicles

Travelling to space for personal delight is affordable to only the affluent people, since the tickets go for about twenty million each. Despite the high cost of tickets, the agencies are usually fully booked, and the people claim to find the trip to be worth the money due to the unique experience which includes being weightless, looking at earth from space and the thrill of exploring the universe, among other things. Due to the seemingly increasing demand for space travel, various spaceports have emerged in different countries including the United Kingdom, Japan and the United States of America. Researchers have also been focused on building low-cost reusable launch vehicles. Four of the main developers of suborbital vehicles are discussed below (Goehlich, 2003).

Virgin galactic

They are a family of commercial suborbital and orbital spacecraft. The current project for the developers is the Spaceship Two (SS2), which is intended to provide the first suborbital space travel for private astronauts. The first of these crafts was unveiled in December, 2009. The spacecraft technologies are licensed by an agreement between the spaceship company and the scaled composites. The spaceship company is also responsible for developing the operational systems like the SS2 space vehicle, other space vehicles as well as the carrier aircraft, the White Knight Two aircraft (WK2) and marketing them (Newman, 1999).

Virgin galactic space Line Company ordered its first three ships, namely the VSS Columbia, VSS Voyager and VSS enterprise. Burt Rutan was the designer and developer of the Virgin Space Ship – VSS Enterprise. Its carrier was the Mojave Air and Spaceport aircraft carrier. The VSS Voyager has a capacity of eight people, including its two pilots and six passengers. Its first flight tour was conducted in March, 2010, for about three hours.

Space travel is described as when the space craft exceeds an altitude of 50 miles, and the first privately-funded manned spacecraft to go into space was Spaceship One, in 2004. It ascended for an altitude of over 62 miles on two occasions within a span of a fortnight. In doing so, the spaceship won the 510m Anzari X-prize, after reaching an altitude of about 70 miles (Newman, 1999).

The three Spaceship One vehicles were built by Space Composite at their facilities, in South California. The carrier aircraft or White Knight Two is as big as the Boeing 737, and weighs about 65 Tonnes. It is flown by two pilots, and its first flight was in December, 2008. The carrier has modern avionics, and is capable of supporting four space flights daily, operating all day and night. The WK2 carries the SS2 for launch, to an altitude of about 16km, before dropping it to fire its rocket motor.

The SS2 is designed in such a manner as to limit its moving parts. The key systems of the SS2 have a high rate of redundancy. This is done to ensure the maximum possible level of safety during all the stages of flight. A full test programme has to be completed before commencement of the commercial operations (Newman, 1999).

Construction of the SS2 began in 2007, followed by a motor test in mid 2009, before unveiling to the public in December of the same year. The VSS Enterprise is supposed to start its commercial operations in 2012, with eight people on board. The cabin has a volume of 1,100ft3. The VSS Enterprise has feathering wings that are folded when it launches into space. The folding is aimed at providing a shuttlecock effect with high drag for re-entry, which allows retardation to take place at a much higher altitude than is possible in former space flight re-entries into the earth’s atmosphere, which poses a great amount of risk (O’neil, 1998).

The feathered wings are well designed to stabilize the spaceship in any given altitude, when it is contact with the earth’s atmosphere, without requiring the pilot to do anything. The design aligns the spaceship automatically, and in doing so, it provides the pilot with a less-critical flight control duty during re-entry. The SpaceShip Two has a design that is different from that of the space shuttle, in that it is constructed from light weight composite material as opposed to metal. In addition to this, the SpaceShip Two does not include a thermal protection system since the feathering wings provide higher altitude as opposed to lower altitude retardation.

The fact that SpaceShip Two is launched from a carrier aircraft is beneficial in that it increases safety and significantly decreases the environmental impact of launching a rocket from the ground. The space craft is also different in that it obtains its power from a single hybrid rocket that incorporates solid fuel and liquid oxidizer, instead of separating the boosters and engines (O’neil, 1998).

The commercial spaceport in New Mexico is the first in the world, and was designed by London based Architects, Foster + Partners, alongside other architects and consultants. The runway stretches for over 3 km. The port is aimed at reducing the high cost of commercial space travel as well as allowing private astronauts to take tourist suborbital spaceflights. The design of the spaceship vehicles and passenger procedures are very effective.

This is because they allow everyone to experience space flight without necessarily seeking special expertise or undergoing the exhaustive training sessions. What is required before a flight is a three day pre-flight preparation and training inside a simulated cabin, for the passengers to learn to be comfortable in the new situation with zero gravity, whereby they can choose to remain in their seats or carry out physical manoeuvres.

The seats of the spaceship vehicles are different from those of fighter aircrafts in that the seats of the former are inclined. This is to ensure that the gravitational forces act downwards from the chest, as opposed to acting downwards from the head. Before taking the flight, it is a requirement that everyone goes for the pre-flight medical checks (O’neil, 1998).

The flights are planned to occur at a frequency of one flight a week and increase gradually. In each flight, six pilots are deployed. The spacecraft, the carrier and the mission control at the spaceport each get two pilots. In the return journey, the thickness of the atmosphere is observed to increase. The wings are re-feathered to increase drag, as the spacecraft approaches the spaceport. The flight takes about 2.5 hours from take-off to landing (O’neil, 1998).

XCOR Aerospace

The spaceship for XCOR is the Lynx. It is a commercial reusable launch vehicle with two pilots. It takes people for a thirty minute suborbital flight, to an altitude of about 100 km. The Lynx is similar to an aircraft in terms of takeoff and landing, as it does so horizontally. The difference comes in the engine, as the Lynx uses a reusable rocket propulsion system to set-off and land, instead of a jet-engine. This characteristic of the Lynx sets it apart from other reusable launch vehicles that launch vertically or have wings that enable them to launch after being dropped from their carriers. The Lynx has many advantages including the ability to take four flights daily, fast call-up and quick turnaround between flights. In addition to this, the Lynx is designed to ensure safety and efficiency and it allows low cost maintenance procedures (Roberts, 1996).

The airframe of the Lynx aircraft is entirely made from composite, which is both strong and light. The nose and leading edge of the Lynx have thermal protection system (TPS). This enhances its resistance to heat during re-entry into earth’s atmosphere. The length of the spaceship is about 10 metres, and its wings have a wide area that is beneficial in reducing the touchdown velocity. The Lynx also has a double delta wing with a span of about 8 meters.

The Lynx has higher performance as compared to other rocket-powered vehicles from XCOR, like the EZ-Rocket and the X-Racer. The construction of the Lynx borrowed various concepts from the prior two rocket-powered vehicles. The concept of integrating safety, reliability and reusable propulsion into an airframe was borrowed from the EZ-Rocket, while the X-Racer provided knowledge necessary to improve on low cost maintenance and operation processes (Roberts, 1996).

The prototype model for Lynx is named “Mark ı” while the production model is “Mark ı ı”. The prototype is expected to commence testing in 2012 and the Mark II will follow in about one year. The design of the spaceships is focused on providing safe travelling, while maintaining its reliability and minimal expenditure on operations. Safety is a product of dependability, while dependability comes with frequent flights at minimal cost. The minimal requirements for a licensed spaceport to accommodate the operations of the Lynx are a runway of 2.5 km, appropriate termination strategies, minimal of two hours turnaround, minimal operations expenditure and the least possible maintenance intervals, approximately after forty flights. The operation of Lynx is also to be in regions of good visibility and appropriate winds (Roberts, 1996).

The expected capabilities of the Lynx include:

“Both in-cockpit and externally mounted experiments, astronaut training, microsatellite launch and upper atmospheric sampling. In addition to this, there will be microsatellite launch, ballistic trajectory research and personal spaceflight (space tourism).”

Primary payloads on the Lynx vehicles will be located on the pilot’s right hand side or above it in an experiment pod. The maximum load for the production version of Lynx is 120 kg to 100 km. This weight can be in various forms including an individual in a pressure suit or middeck lockers. The external pod can hold a maximum of 650 kg. The later space can carry two stage carriers for launching microsatellite or experiments. Secondary spaces include the region behind the pilot in the cockpit, or the fuselage (Roberts, 1996).

The participants in a spaceflight sit to the right of the pilot. The cabin is pressurized, requiring the pilot and the participant to wear full pressure suits for the entire period of the flight, which is twenty five to thirty minutes. Before the first flight, the people taking the ride shall be screened for five days and four nights. In addition o this, the participants will be introduced to the various features of the suborbital flight experience. To make the flight safer and more enjoyable, participants of the flight will undergo training to help them handle the variation in gravitational force (Roberts, 1996).

Masten space systems

Masten space systems, a fast-prototyping rocket technology research and Development Company, together with space Florida have shown interest in launching a suborbital reusable launch vehicle. Masten space systems specialize in producing “fully-reusable, vertical-takeoff-and-landing suborbital rockets” that can be used regularly at an affordable price, taking with it a small crew on each of its several trips in a day. In doing this, Masten will provide regular, reliable and affordable access to the suborbital space environment, providing developers, both scientific and technological, with a good view of space occurrences, as well as regular interaction with space (Writers, 2010).

Another one of the objectives of Masten in ensuring frequent flight operations is to use them for quality assurance for experiments bound for the international space station. Masten is about to finish manufacturing their space vehicles and their next requirement is obtaining an appropriate location to base the flight team, since its current operations are conducted in Mojave, CA. While the space vehicles are developed and tested in Mojave, Masten has been keen in creating a large demand for space tourism, for them to acquire multiple space ports (Writers, 2010).

The familiarity of Masten with RLVs goes a long way, as they have scored highly in NASA’s Lunar Lander Challenge in 2009, and have had successful flights on their prototype RLV’s. This knowledge base is beneficial to Florida, since Masten’s launch vehicles will enhance commercial research and development. Preparations of the SLC-36 for Masten demonstration launches require minimal infrastructure, which is another advantage of Masten space vehicles.

Masten’s focus on technology saw them increase their engineers, conduct their first VTVL relight, work on the CruSR contract, win a plume impingement SBIR, operate on their Scimitar engine and fly Xaero, for thirty kilometres. Their focus in business was also observed when they hired more people for that sector. The extra people have helped to work on contracts, increase their focus on customers, boost their sales and growth, as well as increase their investors (Writers, 2010).

Blue origin

Blue origin NewSpace Company is renowned for its secretiveness in the conduction of its activities. They have been focused on making a vehicle that takes off and lands vertically name “New Shepard” with the funding of the founder of Amazon.com. Since their experiments on the flying vehicle were conducted in 2006/2007, the company has been silent, and people are unaware of any current projects. The company provided some information that indicated that they were still working on the New Shepard, and that there were possibilities f autonomous flying in the year 2011, and crewed flight opportunities in 2012 (David, 2010).

Blue origin is also working on a $3.7 million contract from NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program, that will develop a “pusher” launch escape system, and a composite pressure vessel. The operation of the escape system is different from the “tractor” system in use, in that it would use thrusters laced under the cabin to separate it from the launcher if a breakdown were to occur as opposed to being pulled away. Their familiarity with the project could have won them the contract, since the New Shepard vehicle was designed with a similar mechanism that separated the crew module from the propulsion module, to land separately (David, 2010).

The activities of Blue Origin as far as space tourism is concerned are progressive, in that they were suspected to be focusing on orbital missions and not just suborbital spaceflight. This information was from a reliable source that showed that the company was proposing:

“A ‘bi-conic space vehicle’ that could be launched on an Atlas 5 402, a variant of the Atlas 5 with two Centaur engines in its upper stage and no strap-on solid rocket boosters.”

The technologies from Blue Origin are currently aimed at suborbital movement, before progressing to endured periods in space, through orbital flights. NASA has shown its support for efforts in developing commercial spacecraft, as seen from the $50 million purse shared among five companies, including Blue Origin (David, 2010).

Blue Origin has worked on the New Shepard vehicle for at least three years. It comprises a pressurized crew capsule that is mounted on a propulsion module that hurls the unit upward for a distance of 120 km. It takes 2.5 minutes to accelerate before coasting at the edge of space with the engine shut. This helps to achieve a minimum of three minutes of microgravity. Motion is vertical, and the engines are restarted during re-entry for a powered landing. The crew capsule and propulsion module can be separated for individual landing if a malfunction occurred. The crew capsule has a parachute for soft landing (David, 2010).

Blue Origin has a different approach to space tourism, which involves market research and education. This process includes organizing scientific workshops around the nation that touches on astronomy, life sciences and atmospheric sciences. The space vehicles are aimed at providing an affordable and personal flight in space (Goehlich, 2003).

Conclusion

Space travel and tourism is a trend that is catching up fast, and should have been embraced a long time ago were it not for the economic and social disturbance due to the cold war, leading to the wastage of vast resources, due to the shift of focus from developing space vehicles, to developing missiles and expendable launch vehicles. These vehicles delivered heavy payloads to orbit, leading to the first crewed flights to orbit, though this limited civilian space activities, to date. Space development in the USA was highly appreciated in the 1960’s and this enthusiasm should have led to development of commercial space travel in the 1970’s. Analysts view the situation as over thirty years of wasted time and revenue that could have propagated the economy of the United States to great heights.

It is disappointing that commercial space travel did not set off as fast as the introduction of commercial planes after the first aeroplane by the Wright brothers. Space development is supposed to lead to the growth of the economy when it is introduced to the public for commercial purposes as opposed to being a means for the government to advance its technological supremacy in space (ISU, 2001).

References

Abitzsch, S. (1996). Prospects of Space Tourism. presented at the 9th European Aerospace Congress. Berlin, Germany.

Collins, P. (2000). Public Choice Economics and Space Policy: Realising Space Tourism. Acta Astronautica, 48(5-12), 921-950.

David, L. (2010). Veil lifts slightly on Blue Origin rocket project.

Goehlich, R. (2003). A Representative Program Model for Developing Space Tourism. Berlin, Germany: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag.

ISU. (2001). Space Tourism: A Literature Review. Strasbourg, France: ISU MSS.

Newman, K. (1999). Falling from Grace: Downward Mobility in the Age of Affluence. California: University of California Press.

O’neil. (1998). General Public Space Travel and Tourism – Volume 1 Executive Summary, NASA/STA.

Roberts, L. (1996). Space Business Incentives: It’s Time to Act.. Ad Astra, 8(2).

Writers, S. (2010). Masten Space Systems And Space Florida Sign Letter Of Intent.