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2008, The Year of the Spaceship 126

DynaSoar writes "2008 Could be a the year of the Spaceship. Virgin Galactic intends to unveil White Knight 2 as well as Spaceship 2 during the next year, at this point planning for January. Burt Rutan, always reticent to comments on progress of any project, says nothing to support or contradict Virgin Galactic's announcement. However, the report states that Spaceship 2 is 50% complete and White Knight 2 is 60% complete. In addition, Virgin Galactic is considering using White Knight 2, or possible its successor White Knight 3, to put small satellites in orbit for a cost of US$3 million, less than half the current front runner in (projected) low cost orbital launches; SpaceX's Falcon at US$6.7 million. Tourism aside, this could be an extremely lucrative spin off of Virgin Galactic's original plans. If this turns out to be a profitable endeavor, the cost of tourism flights could drop significantly."
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2008, The Year of the Spaceship

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  • risk in liquidity (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Speare ( 84249 ) on Monday December 10, 2007 @10:14AM (#21641257) Homepage Journal

    This whole space-tourism thing is at a precarious stage. Should there be just one freak accident, their revenue prospects would turn off like a Fossett.

    Sorry, bad pun. In the 1970s, we seemed to be ready to do daring things even after lives are lost. Today, the public is far more risk averse. One more shuttle disaster and we'll be on the ground for twenty years. And I doubt a private company would fare much better than NASA in this regard.

  • Re:risk in liquidity (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Teancum ( 67324 ) <robert_horning AT netzero DOT net> on Monday December 10, 2007 @10:34AM (#21641499) Homepage Journal

    This whole space-tourism thing is at a precarious stage. Should there be just one freak accident, their revenue prospects would turn off like a Fossett.

    The only way this would have a significant impact is on a political basis. That would be, some idiot of a bureaucrat who gums up the whole thing by holding hearings and stopping anybody in any situation from using a rocket of any design to get into space.

    In fact, that is precisely the problem that the USA has been facing in manned spaceflight.... that there has been one "true" design of a spacecraft. When a major design flaw is found with that spacecraft design, it shuts down the whole "industry" and makes a huge mess of things.

    If you make the comparison to commercial aviation, this would be like trying to conduct passenger air travel with everybody using the same type of airplane or even the very same (very large) airplane. Yeah, if there is a problem or an accident involving that design, perhaps a serious inquiry should occur and perhaps even shut down all of the airplanes of that particular design. Luckily, there are enough different kinds of airplanes flying with commercial aviation that passenger air travel would continue even if the FAA completely removed one type of airplane with a particularly fatal design flaw...or even removed all of the aircraft of a particular manufacturer (like Boeing, for instance). Would that put that particular manufacturer into bankruptcy if their aircraft were grounded for a significant amount of time? Yeah. No doubt. But it still wouldn't kill commercial aviation, and in the long run it would actually be healthier for the industry as others would try to fill the economic niche left by the removal of that company, specifically trying to overcome the problems discovered.

    While nobody, and I mean nobody, really wants to see somebody die in space, and I'll admit that I really am concerned about commercial spaceflight safety, even having a full spacecraft of passengers dying would not necessarily be "the end of the world". People die in amusement parks, and fairly often on roller coasters. A curious thing happens when people die in an amusement park, however: The number of customers actually goes up! I'm not kidding here. And the lines to get on the ride where people died actually get longer (once, of course, the ride is fixed and the park officials claim to have fixed the problem).

    If, when an accident occurs for the commercial spaceflight industry during actual operations of the spacecraft, there will be some very intelligent (they are rocket scientists, you know) people who will be able to calmly and completely explain where the safety protocols broke down, what was the real problem, and be able to honestly say that the problem has been corrected. This has been a pattern since the beginning of commercial aviation or even commercial shipping of any kind, and I simply don't see this one transportation method being openly dismissed to the degree you are suggesting if somebody dies. Do people still ride passenger cruise ships through the North Atlantic since the Titanic sank?
  • Re:US$3 million! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Bill_the_Engineer ( 772575 ) on Monday December 10, 2007 @10:58AM (#21641813)

    I know your joking, but 3 million dollars is a significant reduction in launch costs.

    The biggest hurdle I experienced in developing a low cost research satellite bus was the "impedance mismatch" between the cost of the satellite and the cost to launch it into orbit. It is almost impossible to sell a satellite that lowered costs by accepting some higher mission risks when you'll have to raise $30 million to put it in orbit. Even dividing this cost through multiple payloads is not always that great a deal since the secondary payloads are subjected to the requirements of the primary payload. This usually means accepting a less-than prime orbit inclination for your intended mission.

  • by peragrin ( 659227 ) on Monday December 10, 2007 @11:44AM (#21642459)
    I was just thinking that about my DVD player remote. It has play/pause/ skip etc, but then it has three men buttons, a num pad, and at least 15 other buttons that I have never touched. In the 8 years I have owned the DVD player some 30 butttons haven't ever been used, yet every new DVD player has all those same buttons.


    I ask as I have been using Apple's front row to watch some dvd's on my comuter, and apple's 6 button remote is simple to use and I have used every button on the player. Add a power button and i would love to use it as my DVD player remote. Possily a separate eject button but even that isn't nessecary. You have to get up to get the disc anyways, leave the eject button on the drive.
  • by WhiplashII ( 542766 ) on Monday December 10, 2007 @11:50AM (#21642545) Homepage Journal
    Typically the fuel saved is irrelevant - the real reason to launch a rocket from high altitude is better engines. To a certain extent, the efficiency of a rocket engine is related to the ratio of internal engine pressure to external engine pressure - so high altitude launch lets you use lower pressure (lighter) engines and keep the same expansion ratio.

    Of course, most people do that by using a first stage rocket to throw the second stage out of the atmosphere - because experimental rockets are cheaper to develop than experimental aircraft (at least that is the idea). But if you have the airplane already, it makes sense to use it.
  • Ob. skepticism (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Robaato ( 958471 ) on Monday December 10, 2007 @12:20PM (#21643023)
    So, if Rutan, Virgin Galactic, and Scaled Composites are aiming for orbital flights, will they have to redesign the spacecraft from scratch?

    Why SpaceShipOne Never Did, Never Will, And None Of Its Direct Descendants Ever Will, Orbit The Earth []
  • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Monday December 10, 2007 @05:08PM (#21647461) Homepage
    What really got me was this:

    says Whitehorn, adding that he wants to offer $3 million launches to low Earth Orbit for small satellites. This launch service could use WK2 or a larger successor in the 2015 timeframe, which Whitehorn referred to as White Knight Three, using in either case a two-stage rocket that would place the payloads into orbits.

    And the actual orbital launch vehicle is...?

    Don't announce non-news. Now, Virgin Galactic does have a couple rudimentary "orbital designs", if you can even call them "designs". You know what? So do I. So do hundreds of thousands of people and companies. Having a design is not the critical factor. Having something that you're actually building, that has a serious economic study behind it, is.

    Incredible claims require incredible evidence. SpaceX's numbers are already an incredible claim (perhaps even justified; time will tell). But Whitehorn is talking about half that, with a so far mythical launch vehicle. Where's the evidence? Scaled is a company that's been building low-performance rocket planes -- a task a couple orders of magnitude less complicated than building actual orbital craft. Show us the evidence. Show us the designs. Explain how these designs are going to violate the economic principles that have held back the rocketry industry.

    They mention a two stage rocket. Even with a carrier, a two stage rocket still requires significant ISP, *especially* when that small-scale (30,000 kg loaded; minimally bigger than a Pegasus, and that's a 3-4 stage vehicle), as theirs will certainly have to be. To put it another way, SpaceShipOne's entire propulsion system, from tankage to fuel and oxidizer to combusion and so on, is limited to an ISP of about 250 sec. Each stage of the *three to four* stage Pegasus has an ISP of almost 300sec. There's no way to pull it off without completely scrapping the only rocket design they have experience with and building a complex turbopump-driven LOX/LH vehicle. Scaled's experience with turbopumps: Zero. Their experience with LOX: Zero. Their experience with LH: Zero. Their experience with everything else to do with rocketry, from reentry TPS to gimbaled thrust to RCS to thermal management in a vaccuum environment? Zero. They've worked with the easiest and lowest performance of modern rocket systems, a design that doesn't scale to orbit at all. If they want to do this, they're going to be starting practically from scratch.

    Once again: where's the evidence that this is remotely serious?

    I know Scaled is everyone's darling, but as far as real, orbital rocketry goes, they're a joke. If you want to cheer for a relatively small private rocketry company, cheer for one that actually is seriously working on getting to orbit and has an actual serious chance of getting there -- SpaceX. Even with them, there are no guarantees, but at least they're building the right things, not joyrides with about as much relevance to orbital rocketry as me building a go cart would be to formula 1 racing.
  • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Monday December 10, 2007 @05:30PM (#21647817) Homepage
    The problem is that gaining enough altitude for LEO is only a very small part of a rocket's energy requirements, let alone gaining only enough altitude to get you into the stratosphere. It's a rather minimal percentage of your energy requirements. The spacecraft also gains a bit from whatever forward momentum the carrier craft had, but you're typically looking at perhaps 3-5% of its final velocity.

    There are two real benefits to carrier craft for orbital spacecraft. The first, and lesser one, is that by getting you past most of the atmosphere, you don't have to face much atmospheric resistance. This means less losses and a simpler TPS for launch. The second one, which to many people's surprise is typically the more relevant one, is the ability to launch from wherever you want. Launching from near the equator can be a big help in reducing delta-V requirements. Launching from over water mostly eliminates sonic boom problems. It also means that in the event of an accident, civilians aren't much impacted. These practicalities can be surprisingly important for reducing costs.

    Scramjets are quite different. Their goal is to actually provide a significant percentage of the delta-V requirements. A subsonic carrier craft will not do this.

    That said, as usual, Scaled is focusing on the showy things here. A carrier airplane may look all nice, but the real make-or-break challenges are in the rocket itself. You don't even have to have a custom-designed plane for carrying a launch vehicle. That's only needed for mounting the vehicle to the underbelly of the fuselage. The Pegasus is mounted under the wing. The Buran and Shuttle are/were mounted fuselage-top. You can tow launch vehicles and even launch them from within the payload bay of a cargo plane, pulled out the back by a drogue chute like a cargo drop (and yes, this has been tested). A craft like WhiteKnightTwo doesn't make much of a difference for actual orbital rocketry, but its higher altitude range can make a big difference for little joyride hops that only care about the easy part -- gaining a little bit of altitude. I.e., what Scaled has actually been working on.
  • by geek2k5 ( 882748 ) on Monday December 10, 2007 @06:34PM (#21648671)

    Virgin Galactic has been asking for deposits for tickets on a proven technology that should be able to be scaled up. It is not like they are taking a tenth scale model and trying to enlarge that. And if the scaling doesn't work, they can always go back to the White Knight One and SpaceShipOne plans and crank them out.

    Phase 1: This is being done in a sense. Private investors, like Paul Allen of Microsoft and Richard Branson of Virgin are providing the sponsorship through direct infusion of cash. This doesn't prevent other groups from doing the small investment route. ("The Man Who Sold the Moon" by Robert Heinlein would fit this.)

    Phase 2: The 'best' reusable craft is limited to three or so designs at the moment. (I'm basing this on American craft that have gone into space and returned to be reused again.) One is the original X-15. Another is the space shuttle. The third is SpaceShipOne. In time, as other groups successfully send people up AND get them back down, there will be others. Success in these areas will attract serious investment from institutions and not just rich people.

    Phase 3: Bigelow Aerospace is already working with inflatable modules that can be used for a commercial space station. I seem to recall that samples are already in orbit. They'll provide habitable space that is more resistant to dings and bumps than hardshell modules and can be launched in a variety of vehicles. I predict that there will be other companies building a variety of modules that can be put into orbit WHEN we get cheaper launch capabilities. (And there will be maintenance companies that keep said modules functional once they are up there.) Sponsorships may not be needed here, especially if the modules are used for rich tourists and zero-G manufacturing.

    Phase 4: Asteroid mining is one area where a company could make lots of money. Since businesses want to keep expenses low, they'll be designing and building lots of space-locked vehicles to do the job.

    At the same time, accidents will happen and there will be instances where asteroids, cargo ships and cometary remains may be bound for very fast reentry into Earth's atmosphere. This is where having an emergency response team to prevent the reentry would be essential. While it could be supported via sponsorships, it would be better if it were a governmental agency like the Coast Guard.

    This space based Coast Guard might even be able to pay for itself by doing asteroid and comet herding of natural threats.

    Phase 5: The space farms will probably start happening in Phase 3. Water, nutrients, seeds and space farm equipment will be launched at much lower costs than the NASA standard of $10K and put into special modules that are as automated as possible. Other modules will handle sewage and air scrubbing, reducing but not eliminating the need for supplies. Eventually there will be enough space farm capacity to eliminate most food launches, with exceptions like beef, tree based spices and things that don't grow in space. (In time this could be replaced by vat grown meat and high quality synthetics, but that technology isn't quite here yet.)

    There are all kinds of ways that this could be funded. While free enterprise can work, there will be governments that will design or buy space tech. And there is room for sponsorship based action too.

The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts. -- Paul Erlich