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Space Race 2: Flying High Beyond The Sky

Burt Rutan a few days before the first X Prize flight. AFP file image.
Huntsville AL (UPI) Oct 26, 2004
Burt Rutan cast an eye around the crowd pressed into Moontown Airport's biggest hangar Saturday night. There was not much room - the seats had been filled since 7 - and the rain kept folks pretty tightly packed inside.

The crowd represented Rutan's past and future: aviation enthusiasts and private pilots, who frequent the grassy strip airport, located 25 miles east of Huntsville, and rocket scientists, most of whom work at the NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center at the other end of town.

Rutan, who has been averaging better than one new aircraft design every year for the past three decades, confessed he is finished with airplanes for a while. The mission now for his Mojave, Calif., team is to create 3,000 new astronauts a year, beginning in four or five years. That is per departure point, Rutan quickly added, and per ship.

Mojave is not going to be the only place in the world where there will be a place to buy tickets and fly a spaceflight, Rutan told the audience. He said it is mystifying why rocket-builders have been ignoring the most obvious and lucrative payloads in their quest to beef up business.

You carbon units, he said. You who are easily replicated by unskilled labor. You are the most valuable payloads. Other payloads are very expensive to build and launch, but you all will pay for your ride.

Next week, Rutan and his business partner, Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft Corp., collect on a $10 million prize won for flying a three-person, privately developed craft into sub-orbital space twice within two weeks.

Even before the competition was over, Rutan had found his next partner, Richard Branson. The British tycoon and flamboyant chief of Virgin Group in London has pledged to more than quadruple Allen's $20 million-plus investment in SpaceShipOne. In exchange, Rutan promised to deliver a fleet of spaceliners to carry passengers beyond the atmosphere.

The backbone of the Branson venture, called Virgin Galactic, will be five ships, each capable of flying at least five and more likely around eight people at one time. SpaceShipTwo will not look anything like its predecessor.

For one thing, Rutan must fix a stability problem caused by SpaceShipOne's high upswept wings. For another, Rutan and Branson plan a ship of luxury, with service and amenities that at least match Virgin Atlantic's upper-class travel service. And that, as any airline flier knows, starts with leg room.

Rutan said SpaceShipTwo will have about the same diameter crew cabin as a Gulfstream V business jet, which measures slightly more than 6 feet in height and 7 feet in width (1.9 meters by 2.2 meters.) Seats will fully recline so that even elderly passengers - Rutan plans to fly his 88-year-old father - will be able to handle the expected force of six times Earth's gravity upon descent.

The G-forces are higher than what SpaceShipOne's pilot experienced, but that is because Rutan is aiming for a top altitude of between 84 miles and 87 miles (135 kilometers and 140 kilometers), rather than the 62-mile, (100 kilometer) target required to win the Ansari X Prize competition.

The extra altitude will add about another 90 seconds of weightlessness for passengers to enjoy. Travelers will be able to do more than watch how candy flies around in space - they can fly themselves.

Instead of shoulder harnesses and tight seatbelts we want this roller coaster-type bar that you fold out of the way and you can float around, Rutan said. We think that's important. If you want the view, we have handles there so you can float over and put your nose right against your own window.

Or if you want to pull down your science tray and do whatever you brought along for an experiment - or play with your cat. You have bought the ride.

You paid for it and this experience is going to have very few restrictions on what you can do because these payloads are doing it for fun and every person has a different idea of what fun is, Rutan said. Does that mean that some guy and his girl might want to take the whole ship? OK!

In exchange for some of the extra altitude and about 30 seconds of weightlessness, passengers also may have the option of landing in a different place from where they took off.

The ship could launch not far from Las Vegas and land in Mojave, Rutan said. Or, we could launch offshore, start out over the ocean and then ... fly over the mountains and land in the desert. I think that will add something to the experience.

Rutan said he hopes NASA and other research organizations will take advantage of Virgin Galactic to conduct experiments now flown on sounding rockets at a cost of several million dollars per flight. SpaceShipTwo's seats will be easily removable to support larger and heavier payloads.

Instead of spending millions to sign a contract, they can just buy a ticket like everyone else. That's the way it ought to be, Rutan said.

Initially, the cost of the flights - estimated at about $200,000 per ticket - will be too high for most people to afford. However, within 10 to 12 years Rutan told the audience he would expect between 20 and 40 percent of them would be able to go.

The demand for sub-orbital space travel will continue to grow until orbital spaceflight becomes a real possibility, in perhaps 23 years to 24 years, Rutan said.

Once it gets started, it won't need to be pushed, because it's going to be pulling us, he said.

The best part of all, Rutan added, is that 15 years from now, every kid in here who dreams, 'Wouldn't it be cool to fly in space?' will know that in your lifetime, you are going to go to orbit. You will know that, not just dream that. I think that is the neatest thing about the whole program.

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Space Race 2: Two For The Show
Cape Canaveral FL (UPI) Oct 19, 2004
It is getting cold in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, with temperatures already dropping well below freezing and the prairie lands covered with a soft blanket of snow. Aspiring astronaut Brian Feeney, however, could not care less. His ride to space is hearty, oblivious to the cold, though high winds would bedevil takeoff aboard the rocket's high-altitude helium balloon launcher. What has Feeney more concerned, though, is the calendar.

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