How to Become a True Space-Case

If the ticket set you back no more than the cost of an airline flight to the opposite coast, would you be brave enough to ride a cutting-edge commercial spacecraft into, well, space?

According to initial estimates, tens of thousands of us would without hesitation, and in only a few years, when the first commercial passenger flights are slated to begin, you'll actually have a way to get there without NASA or the Russian space program.

The initial cost, however, is another matter, since the planned "fare" for a fairly short suborbital flight will be $200,000. Nevertheless, that's quite a bargain when you compare it to the $20 million Dennis Tito paid to ride a Russian Soyuz to orbit several years ago.

Then again, he was up there in orbit for days, while the first regular service to space would be suborbital -- which means riding up above 65 miles in altitude (above 330,000 feet), spending several minutes in zero gravity gaping at the star field above and Earth below, and then falling back into re-entry.

No orbits, in other words.

Catch John Nance on "Good Morning America" Tuesday, March 14, when he'll discuss commercial spaceflights.

That first passenger service is slated to begin around 2008 under the name and logo of Virgin Galactic, a brainchild of Sir Richard Branson, Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, and perhaps the ranking aeronautical genius of our age, Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif. What lies beyond 2008, however, promises to be the beginning of a long but exciting pathway of companies and ideas leading to genuine public access to space.

Rewriting Science Fiction Predictions

Of course, we are a bit behind schedule.

The movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" set the most memorable benchmark. While public access wasn't the theme of the classic film, it depicted space liners routinely boosting passengers into near-Earth orbit to reach a huge and comfortable space station-hotel-spaceport shaped like a giant, slowly rotating wheel, and bearing little resemblance to our extremely limited current version that some have derisively dubbed a man-in-a-can.

While the type of four-passenger, one astronaut ship Branson-Rutan-Allen intends to use is still being designed and built for Virgin Galactic, it follows the success of "Spaceship One," the tiny Rutan-designed craft that won the Ansari X prize nearly two years ago with Mike Melville at the controls.

The X Prize paid $10 million (a fraction of what it cost to win it), but a company intending to eventually orbit space hotels -- the Bigelow Corp. -- has posted a new $50 million prize for the first private, passenger-carrying spacecraft to boost not just 65 miles up, but all the way into orbit. The winner will have to make two complete circuits around the planet at 250 miles high with a crew of at least one astronaut and four passengers.

The catch? It has to be done by January 2010, which most experts say is an essentially impossible timeline. Nevertheless, that's the basis of the fictional space company in my just-released thriller, "ORBIT," set in 2010, which tells the story of an average guy who wins a trip on that first orbital space service only to find himself in deep -- or maybe I should say very high -- trouble.

What makes flying in orbit so much more difficult than a suborbital flight?

Speed. Lots and lots of speed.

The brilliance of Rutan's design for Spaceship One -- and why it worked -- is not just the use of a mother-ship aircraft that carries the tiny spacecraft up to 50,000 feet, eliminating the need for a massive, NASA-style vertical launch. It's how he handled the very considerable problem of re-entry and the heat generated when a spacecraft of any sort falls back to Earth.

In a suborbital flight, the spacecraft is simply boosted high enough to escape the majority of Earth's atmosphere. It can then be allowed to slow once the engine is turned off (as gravity steadily robs it of upward speed) until the craft literally comes to a momentary stop in the sky and begins accelerating back down.

If there was nothing to keep the speed from building up too high on the way back in, the massive frictional heating of the skin of the craft as it flashes faster and faster into the upper atmosphere would require the same type of exotic materials NASA came up with to insulate the space shuttle.

Rutan, however, had a far better idea: Let the atmosphere itself keep the speed down. Spaceship One was built with a flip-up twin-boom tail. Once in the "up" position, the tiny craft looks more like a badminton birdie than a spaceship because it becomes very nonaerodynamic. Instead of zipping smoothly into the upper atmosphere gaining speed and massive heat, it creates so much air resistance (drag in aeronautical terms) that the speed never gets out of control, and therefore the ship's skin does not have to be exotic, heavy or expensive to build. Spaceship One -- and the commercial craft Rutan is building for Virgin Galactic -- merely falls gently into the atmosphere until it's low enough for the tail to be lowered. It then becomes an aerodynamic glider preparing for a shuttle-style power off landing.

Return Trip Troubles

Coming back from an orbital trip is something entirely different, because in order to go fast enough to get into orbit, a speed of roughly 17,000 miles an hour has to be achieved.

Going up, the challenge is basically to carry enough fuel, since once you're above the atmosphere it's merely a matter of how long your engine can keep thrusting you faster and faster to reach 17,000.

Getting rid of all that speed to come home is where the dragons reside. The shuttle does it, as mentioned, with heat tiles that hold back up to 3,000 degrees of temperature. One strategic failure -- as with the Columbia disaster -- and the heat will destroy the spaceship.

In the book "ORBIT," I have my future fictional space transportation company solve the problem by carrying not only enough fuel to reach 17,000 mph, but enough to turn the ship around "on orbit" and burn the same amount of fuel in reverse to cancel all that speed and more or less come to a halt in the sky, falling directly back down with no more speed than Spaceship One. No exotic heat tiles, in other words, and no danger of burning up. Just one heck of a lot of fuel.

As any rocket scientist will tell you, finding a way to carry that much rocket power in the form of fuel is the significant leap in the story, but it addresses the very same problem that will undoubtedly add a few years to the first successful design for carrying passengers into orbit without the need for building a heat-resistant battleship.

But we will get there. Maybe not in time for someone to win the Bigelow Prize by January 2010, but soon, and it's something we should all be applauding, whether or not we'll ever individually buy a ticket.

Why? Because real, cutting-edge innovations in commercial aviation are at a standstill. Supersonic and hypersonic transports are far too expensive for any responsible company to develop alone, and Congress is essentially clueless as to the immense benefits of nationally and fully financing such major projects for the greater good. So the pathway not only to orbit, but to major innovations in transportation between points on the planet will come from brilliant private, entrepreneurial collaborations in space. In truth, the race to achieve routine passenger spaceflight is also the cutting edge of aviation's future.

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