When I was three years ago wrotethat preparations for suborbital tourist flights had reached the homestretch, I had no idea that this statement would turn out to be so exaggeratedly optimistic. Indeed, even then, both Blue Origin with the New Shepard system, and Virgin Galactic with the SpaceShipTwo spaceplane began to conduct regular tests, and, it would seem, very little remained before the first tourists. However, both companies seemed to be in no hurry at all. Half of 2018 and all of 2019 have passed, blissful dock-like times. Then there was the whole of 2020, but it has a good reason. But now both companies have finally staged a race for the amusement of the public. Taking advantage of Blue Origin’s announcement of the sale of its maiden flight in May and setting a date for its maiden flight (July 20) back in early June, Virgin Galactic jumped ahead and announced its first tourist flight on July 11. So now is a great time to remember what a long and thorny road suborbital tourism has already gone through.
As the saying goes, “it was zero, we had fun as best we could”. The completely futuristic looking unit in the photo is the White Knight One carrier plane with the SpaceShipOne spaceplane attached to it. The spaceplane completed 15 test flights, 9 gliding and 6 with the engine on, between August 2003 and October 2004. In the last three flights, it has risen to an altitude of more than 100 km and thus became the first private manned vehicle to reach the boundary of space.
Further history was already determined not by technology, but by people. Key figures in the project were Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and aircraft designer Burt Rutan. After SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X-Prize, having completed two flights at an altitude of 100 km in two weeks, Rutan wanted to start carrying passengers, since there were two more seats in the spaceplane. But Paul Allen had a different opinion. Floor invested to the project $ 28 million, and the X-Prize was only 10. In addition, he didn’t feel comfortable with a project that poses a risk to people’s lives. So when the Smithsonian offered to donate the spaceplane to them, Allen happily agreed and withdrew from the project. As a result, he even made a profit: a gift to the SpaceShipOne museum became the basis for a tax deduction, plus a certain amount was paid for licenses for technologies included in the Virgin Galactic project. Rutan with his company Scaled Composites and new face, head of the Virgin Group, Richard Branson, began building the second generation SpaceShipTwo. It would seem that suborbital tourists did not start flying in 2004, nothing, you just have to wait a little bit. However, the wait dragged on for more than a decade and a half.
The layout of the cockpit of the new spacecraft was shown in 2006. Illustrations of the entire system – in 2008. The new spaceplane was supposed to carry not three people to the border of space, but eight. But things did not go smoothly: in 2007, during tests of the supply of an oxidizer under pressure, the structure collapsed, and three people died, struck by flying debris. Burt Roothan left Scaled Composites in 2011. Albeit slowly, the work was progressing, and the second version of the spaceplane, called VSS Enterprise, began to be tested in 2013. More than two dozen gliding flights were made, but they were in no hurry to proceed to tests with the engine turned on. The fact is that another problem was discovered: the engine from the smaller SpaceShipOne did not want to scale. The polybutadiene HTPB used as fuel had a rubbery consistency and burned unevenly, causing shock and vibration. In three flights with the engine turned on, the speed did not exceed Mach 1.5. In the fourth flight on October 31, 2014, they wanted to test a new fuel – solid polyamide. But soon after overcoming the speed of sound, the spaceplane collapsed. One of the pilots, Mike Alsbury, was killed.
Investigation showedthat the cause of the disaster was human error, made possible by omissions in processes and equipment. Even before reaching the speed of sound, Mike Alsbury mistakenly unlocked the locks that secure the tail booms. In normal flight, these locks must be unlocked after 1.4 M. At transonic speed, the beam servos could not hold them, and the beams collapsed, which led to the destruction of the apparatus. Unfortunately, the design of the control panel lacked a safety lock for unlocking the beams too early, and the training of the pilots had omissions and drawbacks. An investigation into the causes of the disaster and the need to build a new spaceplane threw the project back years.
Against the background of the leaders
From the mid-2000s to the mid-tenths, the SpaceShipTwo project was the undoubted leader in suborbital tourism. But he was not the only one. In parallel, there were other projects and companies. XCOR Aerospace has advanced farthest with its LYNX spaceplane. They developed and tested several models of rocket engines of unusual design – with a piston pump feeding components into the combustion chamber, instead of a turbo pump. The rocket-powered Rocket Racer technology demonstrator has successfully flown. They managed to assemble the spaceplane by about two-thirds. It even launched an Ax Apollo marketing campaign with a deodorant maker that selected 23 people for suborbital flight. But the company was not doing very well: in 2015, the CEO changed, and three of the founders left, creating a new company. As a result, in 2017 XCOR Aerospace filed for bankruptcy…
There were other projects as well. In the region of 2005, development began on the Rocketplane XP, combining conventional jet engines for takeoff, flight and landing and rocket engines for jumping to the edge of space. Rocketplane Kistler went bankrupt in 2010. A mock-up of the EADS Astrium suborbital vehicle was introduced in Europe in 2007 and has not received further development. There was a suborbital tourism project even in Russia. The Kosmokurs company, established in 2014, planned to launch the first tourist in 2025. Alas, in the spring of 2021 it closed.
But there was another company and another person who eventually became the main competitors of Branson and SpaceShipTwo. Back in 2006, Blue Origin, headed by Amazon creator Jeff Bezos, successfully tested technology demonstrator Goddard. Even then, the name of the project was known – New Shepard, in honor of the first US astronaut Alan Shepard, who made a suborbital flight on May 5, 1961. In 2012, an emergency rescue system was tested for the capsule under development. And in 2015, unmanned test launches began. The first flight was not entirely successful: the capsule landed safely, but the rocket crashed. But already on November 23, 2015, the New Shepard complex made a completely safe flight. Bezos also managed to overtake Elon Musk, being the first to successfully land a rocket stage.
During 2016, New Shepard flew four more flights, in the finals successfully testing the capsule escape system while the rocket stage was operating. Contrary to expectations, the stage survived the emergency start of the capsule and, having made the fifth soft landing, went to the museum. In 2017, there was one flight, in 2018 – two, in 2019 – three and in 2020 – one, all successful. In 2021, they made two more flights, in January and April, also safely. In the meantime, Virgin Galactic has completed the construction of a second spaceplane, VSS Unity, which it began testing in 2016. Eight fired flights have gradually been able to reach ever higher altitudes.
And finally, in May, an auction was announced for one tourist destination on its maiden flight. The rest of the seats will be taken by: Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark and 82-year-old Wally Funk, a famous aviator and member of the female space squad Mercury 13 (the participants passed unofficial qualifying tests similar to the male astronauts, but did not fly into space). On June 12, the auction ended, with an unnamed winner shelling out $ 28 million for the flight (by comparison, this is about half the cost of a tourist flight to the ISS for a week).
New Shepard’s first tourist launch has been set for July 20, 2021, the symbolic date for the first manned landing on the moon. But the other day it turned out that Virgin Galactic managed to hurry up and are going to send their first tourist crew on July 11th. Due to the rush, no auctions could be held, and, in addition to the head of the Virgin group, Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic employees will be in the booth.
Different and the same
After discussing the history of projects, it is necessary to dwell on the technical part. The SpaceShipTwo spaceplane is 18.2 meters long and weighs just under 10 tons. The cockpit accommodates two pilots and six passengers.
The craft takes off while suspended under the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. At an altitude of about 15 thousand meters, SpaceShipTwo separates from the carrier and turns on its own engine. It is a hybrid rocket engine that uses solid polybutadiene HTPB as fuel (reverted to the old version) and gaseous nitrous oxide as an oxidizer. The device rises to an altitude of about 90 km (judging by the test results, 100 km are unattainable for it). For braking in dense layers of the atmosphere, SpaceShipTwo folds the tail booms, turning into a kind of shuttlecock. Then, already in the troposphere, the beams unfold back, and the spaceplane makes a controlled soft landing on the runway, like a normal glider.
New Shepard is designed according to a different, rocket, paradigm. It is a single-stage rocket with a height of 18 meters and a launch weight of around 40 tons. In the upper part there is a capsule for six passengers.
The flight is automatic. The rocket launches vertically from the surface and is propelled by a single oxygen-hydrogen rocket engine. After turning off the engine, the capsule separates from the rocket, rises above the Karman line, 100 km, and crosses the “official” boundary of space. However, in the United States, an astronaut is anyone who rises above 50 miles (80.5 km). The capsule is landed on reserved parachutes, supplemented by soft landing engines. Also, the capsule has a rescue system that provides a safe escape from an emergency missile at any height. The first stage makes a soft landing on a rocket engine.
One cannot but rejoice that these interesting designs have finally come close to the beginning of regular flights with tourists. Now, for a while, the topic of suborbital tourism has again entered the front pages of the media. And what will happen next, wait and see. Blue Origin’s pricing policy has yet to be announced. Virgin Galactic has already sold a certain number of tickets for 200 thousand dollars, in 2013 the price increased to 250 thousand. But almost ten years have passed since then, and the current prices are still unknown. The cost of flights is also unknown, so you can either stock up on popcorn and watch how these systems show themselves in operation, or, if you have a few hundred thousand dollars to spare, sign up for a queue for your favorite machine.