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Space

Scientists, Not Just Tourists, Are Getting Tickets to Ride Into Suborbital Space 52

Posted by Roblimo
from the price-war-at-the-OK-space-corral dept.
"Science, perhaps even more than tourism (free reg. may be required to read), could turn out to be big business for Virgin Galactic and other companies that are aiming to provide short rides above the 62-mile altitude that marks the official entry into outer space, eventually on a daily basis." Virgin is looking at ticket prices in the $200,000 range, which is peanuts compared to the millions some scientific space expeditions can cost, even for brief experiments. And if you don't even have *that* much in your research budget, John Carmack has been touting $105,000 space flights for nearly a year now, and Xcor Aerospace has been taking $95,000 space ride reservations since 2008. It looks like the biggest customer for short space flights for scientific experiments so far is the Southwest Research Institute, but many others are lining up, especially since, the article quotes one scientist as saying, “It’s almost impossible to get research on the space station at the moment." Of course, none of these commercial space ventures has actually carried any paying passengers into space yet, but it's only a matter of time before some of them do.
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Scientists, Not Just Tourists, Are Getting Tickets to Ride Into Suborbital Space

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  • by Third Position (1725934) on Monday February 28, 2011 @07:00PM (#35343040)

    When the experiments will get to space has not been set. Neither company has yet announced when commercial flights will begin, but eventually SpaceShipTwo could fly once or twice a day, and the Lynx is designed for up to four flights a day.

    Until they get some solid dates attached to those flights, this kind of thing remains in the realm of wishful thinking. But I wish them all the best.

    • by thsths (31372)

      > Until they get some solid dates attached to those flights, this kind of thing remains in the realm of wishful thinking. But I wish them all the best.

      Indeed, there are three flaws with this offer:

      - This is not a reservation, it is an investment. If the technology and the business works, you will be rewarded with a space flight (and the real investors will get real money.)
      - It does not fly to outer space, not even close. It just flies pretty high and you get to feel some 0g. Big deal.
      - 0g isn't nearly

  • Most scientific research doesn't have budgets far enough into the future to book $100-200k flights without knowing even which year it'll fly. Seems like a potentially huge market otherwise though.
    • Seems to me that scientists have been regularly booking multi-million dollar flights on the Space Shuttle for the last quarter of a century without knowing even which year it would fly.
    • Well it's back to the chicken and egg problem. In order to take off, commercial spaceflights need paying customers. But many would-be paying customers don't want to invest so much money in hardware that hasn't actually flown yet. So we kind of get stuck in this position where some organizations with a bit of extra cash have to take a risk with their money, and some spaceflight organizations with good sales skills have to sell their flights without overselling them (in terms of advertising too much capabilit
  • by bth (635955) on Monday February 28, 2011 @07:19PM (#35343184) Homepage
    Is there a $25 baggage check fee?
  • Out of curiosity (and no I'm not trying to be snarky but actually curious) what sorts of experiments are people looking to carry out in 5 minutes of free fall? Doesn't seem like a lot of time.

    • by Locke2005 (849178) on Monday February 28, 2011 @07:24PM (#35343222)
      Five minutes is plenty of time for me, even including foreplay and a couple minutes of cuddling afterwards...
    • ...what sorts of experiments are people looking to carry out in 5 minutes of free fall?

      I've written up a proposal to see if anyone can hear me scream.

    • by Nyeerrmm (940927) on Monday February 28, 2011 @07:40PM (#35343342)

      Plenty of experiments rely on microgravity -- as an aerospace engineer most of my experience has been in testing devices for use in space, but I know theres a lot of biology and materials work done as well.

      There is certainly a market. Consider that Zero G Corp and the old Vomet Comet got plenty of research done, and there you were stuck with less than a minute of microgravity at a time. Suborbital flights are a midpoint between parabolic flights and orbital flight both in terms of cost and time.

      Also, I know that another point of research that there's a lot of interest in isn't so much for the microgravity environment, but that the vehicles are travelling through the least understood parts of the atmosphere. This provides a great opportunity to learn about the upper atmosphere.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by slick7 (1703596)

      Out of curiosity (and no I'm not trying to be snarky but actually curious) what sorts of experiments are people looking to carry out in 5 minutes of free fall? Doesn't seem like a lot of time.

      How much time do you really for Zero-G sex, porn to make millions and promote Zero-G experimentation? Imagination is as limitless as space itself.

    • by khallow (566160) on Monday February 28, 2011 @07:43PM (#35343384)
      I don't have much idea myself, but there are some metallurgy applications. You can make some alloys out of otherwise immiscible metals. Melt them on the ground, stir quickly at the start of the free fall period and quench the mix.

      There's also some composite materials that consist of a metal and gaseous component. For example, you might have some sort of hollow beads with a metal binder. The radical density differences make this a hard material to build in normal Earth environment. Or you might be trying to make a solid metallic foam.

      Another zero gee favorite is large protein crystals (for crystallography). The five minute period might be enough to create fairly large and relatively flawless crystals in some cases.

      There's one final reason even when zero gee processes take much longer than five minutes. It's a cheap way to test the equipment before you put it in a really expensive environment.

      For example, if you have a kit for making proteins in a week, it would suck to put that on the ISS and find out that you have a horde of technical problems that need to worked out by very expensive astronauts. Even five minutes is enough to get the gear running and find problems that manifest quickly.

      Two other choices are planes flying parabolic trajectories (NASA's "Vomit Comet" gives about 25 seconds of free fall, for example) and dropping stuff on the Earth (which gives a few seconds).

      I think it would be a useful duration/price point for free fall experiments.
    • by chr1973 (711475)

      Experiments have been performed in microgravity for many years now.
      Some methods:
      * Drop towers, giving you a few seconds of microgravity
      * Parabolic flights, a.ka. vomet comet. About 20 s of microgravity IIRC.
      * Sounding rockets, i.e. sub-orbital. Duration depends on rocket motor. For example:
      ** The REXUS program for students use Nike-Improved Orion, gives you 2-3 min.
      ** The MASER program for scientists use VSB-30, gives you 6-8 min (250-320 km)
      ** The MAXUS program use Castor 4B, gives you 12-14 min (>700 k

  • by Locke2005 (849178) on Monday February 28, 2011 @07:27PM (#35343244)
    Yeah, just like we "experimented" with drugs and whatnot in college, some people apparently can now afford to "experiment" with membership in the "37 Mile High Club"!
    • I don't even want to think about the concept of sex in zero gravity. The end result could be the most expensive mess you've ever made.
      • by RockDoctor (15477)

        I don't even want to think about the concept of sex in zero gravity. The end result could be the most expensive mess you've ever made.

        I just closed the tab on the story about the idiot who was conned out of $200,000 (not sure which country's dollars) for some "online girlfriend" ; The coincidence of prices and stories is highly amusing.

      • by TheCarp (96830)

        Heh reminds me of reading this message board where some people were discussing good local spots around town to go as a couple to have sex in a different place.

        Someone mentioned how great a local place that rents hot tubs was, and how its ok, and the owners don't seem to mind etc. A couple of other people chimed in about it.

        It ended in a rather longer post by the owner of the place saying he is no prude, and totally understands but, they are a business, and if they find out you had sex in the hot tub, they h

    • by martinux (1742570)

      As a person who has never taken drugs I'm tempted to go just to tell my friends, "I've been higher than any of you have ever been".

  • Is now booking flights on its new breakthrough space ship to fly at some unknown flight in the future.
    Tickets are set at the breakthrough price of $50,000 US and must be paid in full in advance to my personal offshore bank account.

    Profit !!

  • by Frangible (881728) on Monday February 28, 2011 @08:42PM (#35343746)
    Virgin's the furthest ahead here, and has a small fleet of Scaled Composite's SpaceShipTwo currently in testing. It's an aircraft-launched rocket plane, derivative of the Boeing X-20. The earlier SpaceShipOne was derivative of the Bell X-15.

    Max altitudes:
    - SS2: 110km (est.)
    - SS1: 112km
    - X-15: 108km
    - X-20: 160km (est.)
    - Silbervogel: 145km (est.) (WWII German design the X-20 is derived from)
    - Me-263 Komet: 14km (WWII German fighter the X-15 is derived from)

    (Yes, the "Sputnik moment" of using German technology strikes again)

    The ISS is parked at about 186km.

    The rocket plane design is cheap, but I'm not sure it's possible to actually get the necessary altitude with it. I don't know if the X-20 would've gotten that altitude or not, but Scaled Composite's estimate of 110km seems more sane given their design carries 7 more people than the X-20.

    The ISS's problem isn't the cost involved in getting to it as the Soyuz is pretty cheap -- which is $45k per seat to NASA, or $20k/seat to space tourists -- it's that the number of personnel is limited by the escape spacecraft, which has been a single Soyuz capsule, so there can only be three astronauts there at any one time. NASA was supposed to have made an escape shuttle that would hold more for the ISS, but Congress canceled the funding before it could be completed.

    I don't know that these designs are actually that practical for much as they don't achieve low-earth orbit. But if nothing else, it goes to show that Germany had some damn fine rocket engineers in the 1940s.
    • by Frangible (881728)
      Apologies, the Soyuz prices should be in millions of US dollars, not thousands.
    • The earlier SpaceShipOne was derivative of the Bell X-15.

      Other than having a completely different engine, completely different electronics, completely different thermal protection, completely different aerodynamics, completely different... Well, you get the picture. SS1 is no more 'derived' from the X-15 than my PC is 'derived' from the Difference Engine. And the same goes for your other 'derivations' - how can the SS1 be 'derived' from the X-15, but the aerodynamically identical SS2 be 'derived' from the X-20, which is radically different from the X-15?
       

      The rocket plane design is cheap, but I'm not sure it's possible to actually get the necessary altitude with it. I don't know if the X-20 would've gotten that altitude or not, but Scaled Composite's estimate of 110km seems more sane given their design carries 7 more people than the X-20.

      The Space Shuttle reaches it's designed orbital altitude - what makes you think the X-20 wouldn't have been able to?
       

      But if nothing else, it goes to show that Germany had some damn fine rocket engineers in the 1940s.

      For the 1940's, yeah. But they're no more responsible for the current craft than James Watt is for nuclear power plant.

      • by Frangible (881728)

        Other than having a completely different engine, completely different electronics, completely different thermal protection, completely different aerodynamics, completely different... Well, you get the picture. SS1 is no more 'derived' from the X-15 than my PC is 'derived' from the Difference Engine.

        Woah. Yeah, it has different electronics than something from the 1960s. Why's that surprising? Every aircraft and spacecraft that's been around for a while has seen numerous updates to its electronics (and sometimes avionics) with each block revision.

        The fundamental concept of the rocket plane, launch from an aircraft, performance, and design are quite similar. Google "X-15 spaceshipone", I'm not really presenting a unique idea here. The most significant costs of spacecraft development are the R

        • by khallow (566160)

          Are we looking at the same pictures here? They most certainly are not "aerodynamically identical"... their size, profile, performance, and characteristics are completely different. The SS1 is a "flying bullet" design quite similar to the X-15. The SS2, otoh, is more similar to the X-20 than it is to the SS1. Again, Google "X-20 spaceshiptwo" -- I am not making any novel observations here.

          The human brain is great for finding nonexistent patterns. I think maybe SS3 shouldn't be based on X-25 [wikipedia.org] though.

          The holy grail for orbital research isn't 5 minutes on a SS2 vomit comet, it's getting the stuff to ISS-- the single most expensive object ever created by man, which we are underusing because of a lack of escape craft that hold more than three astronauts. We need to fix the underlying problem. The ISS was designed for orbital research... it kills me that it's being neglected and our manned space program is falling apart.

          Let me share a pattern my brain sees. Development of complex US government aerospace projects is high margin. Maintenance of complex aerospace projects isn't though there is going to be something like $2 billion sunk into the ISS each year. Once the construction phase of the ISS wraps up, the contractors will want to move on to the next profitable thing, probably the "SLS" (Space Launch System), an

        • The fundamental concept of the rocket plane, launch from an aircraft, performance, and design are quite similar. Google "X-15 spaceshipone", I'm not really presenting a unique idea here.

          Just because it's not unique doesn't mean it's not an idiotic notion. 'Similar' and 'derived' are not synonyms.

          The most significant costs of spacecraft development are the R&D costs -- don't you think Scaled Composites looked over what has been done in the past here and studied it quite carefully?

          Oh, I have no d

    • by necro81 (917438)
      Altitude is not the only concern: you need velocity, too. That, actually, is the biggest impediment to getting into orbit. Altitude allows you to get above most of the atmosphere and develop and maintain that great speed without melting. Although it looks like they go straight up, all orbital craft (rockets, the Shuttle, etc.) do a roll maneuver early in flight so that they "fly" nearly horizontal and start developing significant horizontal velocity. It is the horizontal velocity that allows them to get
  • Scientists have been sending up experiments on sounding rockets for many decades (and more recently Pegasus [wikipedia.org] has been available also). So there really is only a gain for experiments that require human intervention to run. And can be done in 5 minutes. And don't contain hazardous substances. And are small enough to take on one of these launches. What does that leave?

    (The original article is inaccessible to me - sorry if these questions are answered there.)

  • I remember thinking it was a good idea, simple design and very resuable. Is no-one following up on the design anymore?
    • For a space elevator to be practical, we need a way to produce an extremely strong tether in huge lengths. Last I heard, the longest we were able to grow a carbon nanotube (which has roughly the required strength we need for the tether) was about an inch. So in other words I don't think people have forgotten about the space elevator (or other alternative launch technologies), but they are waiting on improvements in material science.
    • by jgtg32a (1173373)
      Wasn't there a quote about construction on a space elevator won't begin until 50 years after people stop laughing about the idea?
  • by zmollusc (763634) on Tuesday March 01, 2011 @01:43AM (#35345422)

    Those foolish fools! Virgin is an ISP.
    Once those scientists pay Virgin, they will be horrified to find themselves strapped into a Cessna 172 for a flight of 'up to' five minutes of freefall at heights of 'up to' 100,000m.

  • We've been flying experiments and payloads for students researcher to the edge of space for almost a decade. We've flown over 3,400 of them for nearly 10,000 students. A lot of the news articles about the new suborbital vehicle say out right that access to high altitude flight has never been done before. Experimenting where no experiments have gone before, well, except for experiments conducted by eight year olds. They put there experiments into ping pong balls and we fly them to 100,000 feet for free. We c

We don't know who it was that discovered water, but we're pretty sure that it wasn't a fish. -- Marshall McLuhan

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