Space Tourism: Space Flights to Sub-Orbital Levels

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Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Photo Credit: Phil Ostroff

We all, at some point in our lives, look up at the night sky in awe.

Some of us wonder and try to understand what’s up there, while others simply appreciate the beauty of it, with all those shiny glittery dots – there are some, however, who dream of going up there.

If it were in their power, they’d do anything to get there, land there, and maybe even walk where no one else has walked before.

It is the will of these enthusiasts that drives the future of space tourism.

The famous Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group,  is not only a space-flight enthusiast, but also a sponsor for developing spacecrafts that are quite similar to the airplanes we see today.

A program named Virgin Galactic was established, and pioneers such as Burt Rutan, key developer of the SpaceShipOne, jumped on board to engineer space tourism.

Why is Flying an Airplane into Space so Difficult?

It would be amazing if we were all able to jump into a Boeing 777 and go to the moon, however, an aircraft designed for flight in the atmosphere of our Earth cannot simply float into space. The problem lies in what is commonly known as the absolute ceiling of the airplane – as its name implies, it cannot be crossed by an airplane. Beyond this point, the air is so light that it is unable to support the weight of the airplane. Hence, space tourism in a 777: not possible.

Can’t NASA Build Bigger Rockets for Space Tourism?

There are numerous problems associated with using rockets for commercial flights:

  1. Rockets, used up until now, were designed for a one time use.
  2. The purpose of current rocket design is simple and… expensive: Get into space as fast you can. This requires fuel; a lot of it.
  3. Rockets are relatively dangerous for commercial space flights.

Airplanes, Space Crafts, and Space Tourism

So how will this work? In simple terms, a carrier airplane will lift the space craft to its absolute ceiling (where the atmosphere is thin). There, the space ship will break-off, and accelerate into outer space. This procedure saves fuel dramatically. Upon re-entry, the wings of the space craft designed by Burt Rutan, now used in cooperation by the Virgin Galactic as well, will fold up, thereby creating drag, and slowing its entry into the atmosphere. After its entry, the wings of the space-craft get back in position so it can land safely back on earth just as any airplane does.

The Future of Pilots With Regards to Space Tourism

Pilots are trained to fly, and to harness their passion for flying in a professionally productive manner – but, sadly, have no major role in this space venture, until the craft returns into the Earth’s atmosphere. With regards to SpaceShipOne, everything was all computerized and mechanical from the moment the space ship broke off from the carrier-aircraft until its entry back into the atmosphere.

When the wings come back to their original state, in an atmosphere that can sustain flight, the pilot takes control. It is now his/her responsibility to land a spacecraft that just turned into a normal airplane in all aspects. The pilot controls via the rudder, elevators, ailerons and wing flaps if necessary, to safely land the plane.

The future of space tourism relies on this very procedure of space flight – people already have flown into space using this procedure. The first space craft developed for this maneuver and that attained space flight successfully was the SpaceShipOne, shown here. How long before it’s as easy to go into space as it is to fly into the Dallas Airport? It’s anyone’s guess.

SpaceShipOne attached to its carrier aircraft: the White Knight. Photo Credit: D. Miller

Resources:

BBC Future. X-prize: Competition for radical change. (2012). Accessed: July 18, 2012.

Klotz, I. ‘No experiments’ for SpaceShipOne. (2012). BBC News. Accessed July 18, 2012.

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© Copyright 2012 Junaid Ali, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science

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