The commercial spaceflight industry, offering members of the public the chance to join an elite band of space tourists, has witnessed burgeoning growth in recent years through the development of high-profile programs like Virgin Galactic.

Decades after the original space race that pitted US scientists against counterparts from the USSR, a new space race is emerging, fought between companies looking to exploit technological advancements to provide once in a lifetime excursions.

There are, however, a number of issues that threaten to at least delay the new age space race. Spiralling costs mean that only a minute percentage of the public will be able to afford the initial space excursions, a lack of worldwide spaceports is preventing widespread use and issues relating to the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations could prevent technology from being exported across the globe.

“There are, however, a number of issues that threaten to at least delay the new age space race.”

In to Galactic

Arguably the leading contender for the commercial space race is Virgin Galactic. A company within Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, Virgin Galactic promises to offer sub-orbital commercial spaceflight to paying customers and certainly appears to be a strong candidate following a number of successful tests.

The spacecraft is carried to a height of 52,000ft by a carrier aircraft, named White Knight II, before separating and launching towards the Kármán line, the commonly agreed limit of where “space” begins at approximately 100km above the Earth’s surface. Of the 3.5 hour flight time, passengers will experience six minutes of weightlessness.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, unveiled in December 2009, will be able to take tourists who pay the $200,000 fee from the space port in New Mexico, US, as soon as it finishes extensive testing. Pending any substantial problems arising from testing, the Virgin Galactic craft is set to be the first commercially available spaceflight enterprise, although SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has since been launched into orbit and returned to Earth.

Amongst others, including the Boeing CST-100 capsule, Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket and PlanetSpace’s Canadian Arrow vehicle, Reaction Engine’s Skylon hypersonic aircraft could also pose substantial competition for Branson’s spaceflight venture.

Is the Skylon the limit?

The Skylon vehicle, developed in the UK and primarily designed for haulage and satellite launch purposes, has also been vetted as a possible alternative for commercial spaceflight. The unpiloted, reusable space plan could provide inexpensive and reliable access to space to any particular companies who choose to acquire the craft.

The craft acquisition process is what makes the Skylon approach unique from other approaches, as Reaction Engine managing director Alan Bond says: “The Skylon manufacturer will sell the vehicle to operators rather than operate the vehicle itself.  Those operators can be commercial, or government and what they launch is up to them.  It opens up the possibility of many different business models all based on the same vehicle.”

The hypersonic aircraft comes equipped with hybrid, dual mode capable SABRE engines, which power the craft differently through separate stages of flight. In air-breathing mode, atmospheric air powers the jet whilst liquid oxygen powers the jet in rocket mode.

The possibilities of passenger spaceflight arise from the cargo hold of the jet, which could be fitted with a pressurised, self-contained module that can be refitted between flights. Windows could be incorporated into the roof so that, during coasting ascent, the vehicle could be rolled upside down for views of Earth from low-earth orbit.

Passenger safety or the need for extensive training, as is currently the case, is also a major talking point, but those behind the design of the Skylon vehicle believe that the ascent profile can be adjusted so that the forces felt during the flight are equivalent to that of a rollercoaster.

“Passenger safety or the need for extensive training, as is currently the case, is also a major talking point.”

The price of flight

Despite the premise of the vehicle, the cost issue of commercial spaceflight will always pose a daunting obstacle. Dennis Tito, the world’s first space tourist, paid $20m for his trip in 2001 and extensive efforts have been made to make the space tourism more affordable. Virgin Galactic has cited a price of $200,000 per passenger, although Alan Bond believes that Skylon can offer another efficient alternative, adding: “We believe Skylon will offer the lowest real cost to reach orbit of the systems (existing and planned) that we know of. The cost will be low enough to enable prices with profit at every level to undercut all the competition even though that competition is receiving substantial Government subsidies. 

“How much cheaper Skylon is will depend upon how good the operators are and how the overall space launch market grows but it could eventually be below a tenth of current launch costs.”

Further commenting upon the financial and business aspect of the Skylon vehicle, Bond believes that the business model would be a perfectly viable option for those operating under UK and EU law, but may not be available to customers in the US. “We are working with the UK Government to ensure that Skylon will be exportable, although our current understanding is that Skylon would not be exportable under US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) constraints.”

Success where others have faltered

Although it could be argued that both Virgin Galactic and Skylon offer precedent for the future of commercial spaceflight, a number of promising proposals have faltered in the development stage. Lockheed Martin’s proposed replacement for the Space Shuttle, VentureStar, was shelved in 2001 after continued problems with the X-33 subscale demonstrator test vehicle, whereas Beal Aerospace ceased operations after Nasa announced its intention to fund research and development of competing vehicles, although spiralling costs were again attributed to the company’s demise.

Instead of learning just one lesson from where others have perhaps failed, Bond considers a number of issues to have contributed and believes that there are many lessons to be learned in the commercial spaceflight market. “There are many and varied lessons to be learnt as there are many issues that must be resolved and balanced for a successful outcome. For example Beal and VentureStar did not proceed for very different reasons. The basics of all commercial success remain; that is to get the right product to a large enough market to sell for a profit, and that is what we are attempting to do with Skylon,” added Bond.