Cape Canaveral (UPI) Apr 26, 2005
Last week, aspiring personal spaceflight operator Virgin Galactic quietly delayed the target date for launching its first commercial suborbital spaceflight by a year or so -- not surprising considering the scope and technical complexity of building a space vehicle for tourists instead of professional astronauts.
What did raise eyebrows during the congressional hearing on commercial space -- which is where Will Whitehorn, Virgin Galactic's president, dropped his news -- is why the firm is backing away from a debut flight in 2007. It turns out the first roadblock is signing the papers to have Scaled Composites, Burt Rutan's aircraft-design and construction firm in Mojave, Calif., begin work.
Virgin Galactic, a subsidiary of Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic Airways in London, last year announced plans to license the technology that Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen developed to create the world's first private manned spaceship.
The experimental vessel, called SpaceShipOne, flew three suborbital flights during 2004 with a company pilot aboard, picking up in the process the $10-million Ansari X Prize for the first commercial spaceflight, plus dozens of other accolades, including the Collier Trophy, the country's most prestige award in the field of aviation.
The problem is U.S. export controls issues -- particularly those that involve the sale or license of technology that could have military applications -- have delayed Virgin Galactic's ability to place a formal order for the spaceships, Whitehorn told members of the House Science Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.
"At this point, due to uncertainty about possible licensing requirements, we are not able to even view Scaled Composites' designs for the commercial space vehicle," Whitehorn said. "After U.S. government technology-transfer issues are clarified and addressed if deemed necessary, we hope to place a firm order for the spacecraft."
The difficulties with export controls have emerged despite the fact that British-owned Virgin Galactic plans to operate its commercial spaceflight services initially in the United States.
"I thought Britain was a relatively friendly nation," Rutan told committee members, adding the export-control issues also are affecting the financing for the project.
"We have had to move away from the basic concept of this being a foreign-funded development," he said.
The issue affects far more than Rutan's ability to sign a contract with Virgin. Other firms, including a group in Dubai, have expressed interest in buying spaceships, he said.
"We have wrestled with this problem in terms of technology transfer to Virgin Atlantic for about five months now, and it has been difficult," he explained, adding that he has been discouraging foreign sales until a routine personal-spaceflight industry is established in the United States.
Despite a price tag of $200,000, about 100 people have signed contracts for rides on Virgin Galactic's spaceliner and agreed to pay the money upfront, while another 29,000 or so aspiring astronauts have agreed to put down deposits of $20,000 each.
Rutan intends to pack as much luxury and amenities as possible aboard the ships, which will carry somewhere between five and nine passengers. He wants participants to have their own windows to enjoy the view, as well as the ability to float during the 4 minutes or 5 minutes of weightlessness planned for each suborbital excursion.
If the technology can be developed to make suborbital spaceflight as safe as commercial aviation in its early days, then the market for space tourism will be enormous, Rutan said.
He predicted up to 500 passengers will fly during the first year of commercial spaceflight service and 3,000 people will fly by the fifth year of operation.
"By the 12th year, 50,000 to 100,000 astronauts will have enjoyed that black sky view," Rutan said. For that kind of breakthrough, however, spaceflight will have to become 100 times safer than it is today, he added.
The most important step the United States could take to clear the road for private firms to build passenger spaceships is to change its licensing and regulatory oversight, he continued.
With the SpaceShipOne flights behind him and the challenge of building, testing and flying commercial space vessels ahead, Rutan did not mince words when speaking of the difficulties he encountered dealing with the branch of the Federal Aviation Administration assigned to oversee commercial space issues.
"The process ... just about ruined my program," he said, referring his experiences with the office of the FAA's associate administrator for commercial space transportation, which bases its requirements on assessing and minimizing risk to the non-involved public.
"It resulted in cost overruns, increased the risk for my test pilots, did not reduce the risk to the non-involved public, destroyed our 'always question, never defend' safety policy, and removed our opportunities to seek new innovative safety solutions," Rutan said.
Because the agency's policies stemmed from its oversight of unmanned-rocket launches and an emphasis on assessing the likelihood and affect of launch failures, the process is ill-suited to reducing the probability of failure in passenger ships, which is how airline regulations are based, he said.
"The regulatory process was grossly misapplied for our research tests and, worse yet, is likely to be misapplied for the regulation of the future commercial spaceliners," Rutan said.
He noted ensuring public safety can be built into the process so it minimizes vehicle development costs.
"This is a subject that FAA seems to be afraid of, Rutan said. "They seem to be happy that they're not required ... to certify these ships. I think it really comes down to the problem that they flat don't have the people that are qualified to do it."
Space Race 2 is a weekly series by UPI exploring the people, passions and business of suborbital manned spaceflight, written by long-time aerospace journalist Irene Klotz.
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Don't Breathe the Moondust
Huntsville AL (SPX) Apr 26, 2005
In 1972, Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt sniffed the air in his Lunar Module, the Challenger. "[It] smells like gunpowder in here," he said. His commander Gene Cernan agreed. "Oh, it does, doesn't it?"
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