With $200,000 and some patience, you can book your ride to the ‘ignorosphere’

The WhiteKnight Two, known as the mother ship Eve, resembles a flying catamaran. Between the two “pontoons” is SpaceShip Two, christened the VSS Enterprise.
The WhiteKnight Two, known as the mother ship Eve, resembles a flying catamaran. Between the two “pontoons” is SpaceShip Two, christened the VSS Enterprise.
Mark Greenberg/Courtesy Virgin Galactic

If you’re a baby boomer, or older, you probably remember hearing President John F. Kennedy’s clarion call to conquer space.  

“We choose to go to the moon,” the young president declared in 1962, “because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

Win we did, reaching the Sea of Tranquility in 1969 and five other lunar sites after that. Indeed, for more than half a century the conquest of space has helped to define the United States to the world and to itself. In its marriage of technical skill, innovation, and daring, the space program arguably is our greatest national achievement.  

But that was then. More recent manned ventures barely have drawn public notice unless tragedy struck, and when the last space-shuttle mission lands at Cape Canaveral this summer, NASA will go out of the manned space-flight business, temporarily at least. A return to the moon has been scrubbed for lack of funds, while a mission to Mars remains a dream. For the foreseeable future, if we even want to send someone up to the International Space Station, we will have to bum a ride from — remember the Cold War? — the Russians.

More than four decades after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the question is worth asking: Is that all there is?  

 The VSS Enterprise spaceship reaches the upper limits of the atmosphere.
The VSS Enterprise spaceship reaches the upper limits of the atmosphere.
Mark Greenberg/Courtesy Virgin Galactic
Maybe not. Although a commercial space-travel industry has been a dream for years, it finally could be on the brink of emerging. In the yucca-studded Mojave Desert northeast of Los Angeles, just a few miles from Edwards Air Force Base, where Chuck Yeager and other hot-shot test pilots of yore pushed the edge of the envelope, Brian Binnie *78 is involved in the construction of two craft that may, perhaps as early as next year, begin the first regularly scheduled private suborbital flights.  

Binnie, a program business manager for Scaled Composites Inc. and a test pilot himself, is working in partnership with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, a corporate cousin of Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airlines. In a huge hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port, Binnie and Virgin Galactic’s CEO, George Whitesides ’96, inspect the vehicles they believe will get them and hundreds of customers paying $200,000 apiece into space. SpaceShip Two, or VSS Enterprise, as the craft also is called, will carry six passengers and a crew of two. It will be borne aloft attached to WhiteKnight Two, also called Eve, a huge, twin-hulled plane resembling a flying catamaran, which will release it at an altitude of 50,000 feet. SpaceShip Two’s rocket engine then will ignite and propel it to about 62 miles, into the upper reaches of the atmosphere, although not quite into orbit, before landing like an airplane. (By comparison, the typical airliner travels at an elevation of about 30,000 feet, while the space station floats about 200 miles above the earth. Space generally is considered to begin at about 62 miles up.)  

Brian Binnie *78, wearing the flight suit he used for all but the last of his flights on SpaceShip One, a research rocket designed for suborbital flights, at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
Brian Binnie *78, wearing the flight suit he used for all but the last of his flights on SpaceShip One, a research rocket designed for suborbital flights, at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
Peter Stember

What will passengers get for their money? A 90-minute trip, including about five minutes of weightlessness. Spectacular, thousand-mile views and the sight of the thin, blue ribbon of Earth’s atmosphere set against the infinite blackness of space. A chance to boldly go where only a relative handful of human beings have gone before.

Horizontal launches, as these are called, are cheaper and safer than the ground-based vertical launches used in all U.S. spaceflights, and perfectly suited for a relatively small ship, says Whitesides, who served as NASA’s chief of staff before joining Virgin last year. Because the most dangerous parts of any flight are takeoff and landing, Virgin decided to conduct these parts of the voyage using familiar airplane technology where, he notes, “we have more than a hundred years of experience.” And because the rocket engine ignites at high altitude, where the air is thinner and gravity is weaker, it does not need to be as powerful as one trying to lift off from the ground. It is a return to the old way of doing things: Early supersonic planes such as the Bell X-1, in which Yeager first broke the sound barrier, were dropped from Air Force bombers at high altitudes.

Although orbital flights remain a long-term goal, White­sides cautions that getting into orbit complicates matters enormously. Not only does it require a more powerful engine at liftoff, but it needs much greater heat protection on re-entry. Orbiting spaceships travel at Mach 25 — in other words, 25 times the speed of sound — while suborbital flights will reach only about Mach 3.5, generating less friction as they return through the atmosphere. Orbital flights also would require pressurized spacesuits (Virgin hopes that its flights will be conducted in a “shirt-sleeve environment,” meaning that travelers never will have to don spacesuits).  

Travelers on SpaceShip Two will take off in an upright position, as on an airplane, but they will return to Earth lying down, which greatly reduces the effects of gravity on them. Prospective Virgin passengers will undergo medical examinations and a few days of training in a simulator and on parabolic flights to cover the basics of safety and accustom them to weightlessness, so that they will get the most out of their time in zero gravity. Virgin already has been booking flights, and more than 50 people have made reservations, paying a $20,000 deposit. Whitesides and his wife, Loretta, who were married in 2006, have paid to take a long-deferred honeymoon in space on a future Virgin Galactic flight. For those who want to join them, there is now a network of accredited space-travel agents.

Virgin Galactic was created in 2004, after a Branson-funded team collaborating with Scaled (and with Binnie at the controls), won the Ansari X Prize of $10 million awarded to the first nongovernmental group to design a vehicle that could make two manned trips into space within two weeks. That ship, known as SpaceShip One, now hangs in the Smithson­ian in Washington. Scaled and Virgin have formed a joint venture called The Spaceship Company, based at Mojave, to build what eventually will be a fleet of five SpaceShip Twos and two WhiteKnight Twos. It is, Whitesides boasts, “a real spaceship factory.”  

Nearly 600 miles to the east, in the New Mexico desert, Aaron Prescott ’06 checks the progress of construction at Spaceport America, where all Virgin Galactic flights will take off and land. The main building, which will serve as hangar, training site, passenger lounge, and mission control, is nearly complete, and several suborbital satellite launches for other customers already have taken place from adjacent launch pads. Owned and operated by the state of New Mexico, the facility was built on state-trust lands near Upham, about 30 miles east of Truth or Consequences, N.M. It is one of nine private spaceports licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration, which now has jurisdiction over commercial spaceflight, although not all have tenants and most are still in the planning stages. The location next to White Sands Missile Range offers several advantages, says Prescott, the director of the spaceport’s commercial division: high altitude, good weather, low population density, and proximity to restricted airspace.  

Spaceport America’s runway — 10,000 feet long, 200 feet wide, and capable of accommodating any commercial jetliner — is finished, and workmen are putting the finishing touches on the main hangar and terminal building. The spaceport is also green (LEED gold-certified), designed with a dirt-covered roof to help it blend into the mountain background. The runway was made with aggregate that was dug, ground, and mixed on-site, and Prescott says the spaceport will recycle its own wastewater. The area has a rich history. Archaeol­o­gists have discovered prehistoric campsites on the grounds, and it sits astride the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the king’s highway, where half a millennium ago Spanish conquistadors carried silver from Mexico City to Santa Fe. Where the pioneers of yesterday once traveled, Prescott muses, the pioneers of tomorrow will follow.

George Whitesides ’96, stands in front of a hangar with WhiteKnight Two, or Eve, the mother ship for SpaceShip Two.
George Whitesides ’96, stands in front of a hangar with WhiteKnight Two, or Eve, the mother ship for SpaceShip Two.
Peter Stember

Virgin is not the only aspiring space-tourism company, although it seems to be the furthest along, in large part because of its funding and its horizontal-launch model. Another company, XCOR Aerospace, has designed a space plane that will carry one passenger, along with the pilot, while Armadillo Aerospace, which has focused on developing a lunar lander, has announced that it, too, intends to develop a suborbital rocket for space tourism.

In the short term, at least, the next age of manned space exploration will have to be ­commercial. The reason, simply, is money, a seemingly eternal verity that is illustrated nicely by a scene in the movie version of Tom Wolfe’s book, The Right Stuff. The seven Mercury astronauts argue with technicians over who should have the final say in spaceship design. The astronauts argue that they should, because if the public loses interest in the daring space pilots, Congress will, too, and the project will be finished.  

“You boys know what makes this bird go up?” asks Gordon Cooper, gesturing toward their tiny capsule. “Funding makes this bird go up.”

“That’s right,” Gus Grissom interjects.   “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

That, in a nutshell, is what has befallen the U.S. manned space program since astronauts last left the moon 38 years ago. NASA has complained about underfunding for decades, ever since the final three planned lunar missions — Apollo 18, 19, and 20 — were canceled because of budgetary cutbacks. Since then, the agency has struggled to find another compelling mission. To be sure, it has had its successes, setting ever-longer endurance records, conducting many valuable experiments, and helping to build the space station. But it has not captured the public’s imagination the way the moon program did.

Shortly after his inauguration, President Barack Obama asked Norman Augustine ’57 *59, the former chairman of aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, to lead a commission that would chart America’s next steps in space. The commission’s report, “Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation,” was issued in October 2009. It concluded that NASA no longer could afford to handle the responsibilities both of ferrying people and cargo to the space station and more-ambitious manned programs to distant destinations in the solar system. In addition to recommending that a plan to return astronauts to the moon be shelved for the time being, the Augustine commission urged NASA to promote the development of a commercial space industry, which would enable the agency to husband its limited resources.

“If NASA spends all of its money running a trucking service to run people and fuel into Earth orbit, it won’t have any money left to do the really exciting exploration missions away from Earth orbit,” Augustine explains. “There’s a need to get NASA out of that business, so it will have some money to do the things it was created to do.”

Although a few other countries, primarily Russia, Japan, and China, have manned space programs, none has yet pursued a private space industry. However, new companies are sprouting up around the United States, most of them intent on taking over NASA’s taxi-service function of getting people and materials into orbit. In addition to space-tourism companies like Virgin Galactic, at least half a dozen firms are working on a variety of projects, ranging from suborbital scientific flights to orbital capability to privately owned mini-space stations that someday might serve as orbiting hotels.  

Several of these ventures are funded by wealthy individuals such as Branson and Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, who is backing SpaceX, a space-transport company. Texas-based Blue Origin, funded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos ’86, is reported to be developing orbital spacecraft in Texas, although company officials decline to speak to the press (the company’s existence was not even known until three years after it was formed). NASA is subsidizing many of these companies, including Blue Origin, which also received $3.7 million in federal stimulus money. Virgin Galactic does not receive any government support, but it has signed on as a strategic partner with two other companies, Sierra Nevada Space Systems and Orbital Sciences Corp., which are trying to develop orbital vehicles.

The United States always has had a commercial space industry, Whitesides points out. All of NASA’s rockets and spacecraft were built by private industry, such as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, and Northrop Grumman, which then licensed the technology to the government. What is new is relying on private businesses to operate the ships as well as to build them.  

Augustine believes that the government should support a commercial space industry in several ways: subsidizing the development of new orbital vehicles, providing them with a place to go (keeping the International Space Station aloft, for example), and offering a guaranteed contract to deliver astronauts and cargo into space. He compares this to the Air Mail Acts of the 1920s and ’30s, which by giving private companies contracts to carry the mail, are credited with jump-starting the commercial aviation industry. There has been some congressional opposition from those who question the amount of funding the industry would require in an age of fiscal austerity, and Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican, has questioned the safety of private programs. Shelby has made it clear that he is concerned about the loss of government jobs, many of them at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., if NASA curtails its manned space missions.  

Aaron Prescott ’06 directs the commercial ­division at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Aaron Prescott ’06 directs the commercial ­division at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Mark F. Bernstein ’83

Virgin Galactic does not want to be a trucking service. It wants to be a cruise ship, and because suborbital flights for tourists are comparatively cheaper, easier, and safer, it is well ahead of its commercial cousins in the orbital field. “I think that the No. 1 determinant for them will be safety and reliability,” is Augustine’s assessment.   “If they can prove that they can build a safe, reliable machine, I think they’ve got a business.”

Whitesides thinks the company is almost there. Even at $200,000, Virgin Galactic’s trips will be considerably less than the $10 million to $20 million that another company, Space Adventures, has charged to ferry a handful of people to the space station on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Heavy demand in the future could drive the price down, though Virgin’s flights probably would continue to appeal to those a tax bracket or two above vacationing at Disney World. On the other hand, the 90-minute suborbital trip is, if one wants to look at it that way, just a really expensive Pirates of the Caribbean.  

“This is not just about sending rich people into space,” Prescott insists. “It’s about economic development, tourism, and education.” Indeed, far from being just a hoot for what some have called “thrillionaires,” regular suborbital spaceflights could yield important scientific benefits. Richard Miles, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton and a member of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s Suborbital Applications Researchers Group, says flights would enable research at the upper reaches of the atmosphere, a level higher than any balloon can reach but below where orbiting spaceships travel. That is an area about which so little is known, Miles says, that it is called the “ignorosphere.”  

Researchers would be able to design experiments and carry them up much more quickly and cheaply than by securing a spot at the space station. Miles imagines studies of such things as gravitational waves, microparticles from meteor­ites, weather patterns, and fluid dynamics. With regularly scheduled flights, scientists could design smaller experiments, get results within hours, tweak or improve them, and send them back up again quickly. Virgin recently signed an agreement to ferry researchers and experiments on some of its commercial flights.

In addition to creating jobs, a new field of American industry, and perhaps inventions and innovations that we cannot yet imagine, commercial spaceflight might make the aerospace industry cool again, Miles suggests, much as it was back in the Apollo days. In many ways, the commercial space industry now resembles the early days of the automobile industry or the civil-aviation industry, when many startups competed for a share of a new technology. A promising sign of progress: There is now a company, Astronauts4Hire, that purports to train flight crews and scientific specialists and bills itself as “your spaceflight crew solution.”

In that sense, the retirement of the space shuttle is the end of an era, but the beginning of another. While the suborbital flights Virgin Galactic hopes to make are similar to the one Alan Shepard made in 1961 to become the first American in space, there is now a possibility that hundreds or thousands of ordinary people will go into space, rather than just a handful of astronauts. We finally may be seeing the democratization of space travel.

“The next several years are going to be very exciting,” writes Matthew Isakowitz ’09, associate director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry trade group, in an e-mail. “Just like any other growing industry, one challenge for the commercial space industry is the investment climate due to the overall economic situation. Many commercial space companies have received substantial initial investment from wealthy entrepreneurs who have proven themselves to be very talented businessmen, which is a great jump-start for our industry. If the commercial space industry is going to grow beyond the initial stages, however, the resources of venture capitalists, angel investors, and banks will be very useful as well.”

Still, a commercial spaceflight program is intended to be only a piece of American space exploration, which will continue to include the unmanned missions that have been so successful, as well as ­more-ambitious manned flights that only NASA can undertake.  

Will that be enough? The Augustine commission con­cluded that even if private firms were able to handle astronaut transport, NASA’s budget would have to be increased by $3 billion per year for the United States to launch a new lunar program. Because that is not likely to happen, Augustine recommended putting such an ambitious program aside for now. As he puts it, “You can’t go two-thirds of the way to the moon and declare victory.” In the meantime, NASA pursues research on technology that one day might enable such a mission.  

The Chinese have launched a man into space and are believed to have greater ambitions. Were the Chinese to make their own trip to the moon — most observers do not think one is imminent — the shock to American pride surely would be as immense as it was when the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957.

Chris Chyba, a professor of astrophysical sciences and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School and a member of the Augustine commission, says that fear reflects outdated Cold War thinking. “You mean, what would happen if China became the second country to land on the moon?” he asks pointedly, putting the issue in some perspective. “Racing China back to the moon is the wrong way to develop the space program,” he continues. “We have to decide as a society if we want to expand out of the solar system.”

In the meantime, both WhiteKnight Two and SpaceShip Two are undergoing tests to perfect the propulsion system and ensure safety. Although Virgin declines to set a firm date for when commercial service will begin, it is believed to be sometime in early 2012. By the end of its first year of operation, Whitesides says, Virgin hopes to offer daily suborbital flights, and possibly multiple daily flights not long after that. One can imagine new billboards along the highway a few years from now: “More daily nonstops to the ignoro­sphere.” From a business standpoint, Whitesides explains, the key for Virgin is turnaround time, which can make the vehicles relatively inexpensive to operate. If the company can do even a quarter of the business it anticipates, Prescott says, by the end of the first year of operation more humans will have gone into space from Spaceport America than had gone up in all of human history.  

Although many recall Kennedy’s challenge to go to the moon, there was another line in that speech that is no less applicable today. “The exploration of space will go ahead,” Kennedy said, “whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space.”

In California, New Mexico, and nearly a dozen other places around the country, preparations for the next leg of that race are under way.    

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.