The Next Step for Human Spaceflight

August 23, 2016
Sarah Cruddas
August 23, 2016
Sarah Cruddas

This month has been a significant one for Virgin Galactic. On August 1st it was announced that the company had received its Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) license for testing of SpaceShipTwo. The license covers test flights over the next two years from the Mojave Air and Spaceport in California, and will ultimately see commercial operations of the craft. The announcement came the same day as the second version of SpaceShipTwo - VSS Unity - conducted its first taxi test. This is a test designed to evaluate and calibrate the navigation and communications and telemetry systems ahead of flights.

The awarding of the license is described as an ‘important milestone’ by Galactic’s Senior Vice President of Operations, Mike Moses who said “while we still have much work ahead to fully test this spaceship in flight, I am confident that our world-class team is up to the challenge”, and is welcomed by the company’s customers. Among them Space Angels Network member and Founding Future Astronaut Trevor Beattie, who first signed up on October 4, 2004, the moment that SpaceShipOne was awarded the XPRIZE. “It's great news. We're back in the saddle and pointed at the stars. The loss of Mike was a tragedy, but the team at Galactic are more determined than ever to honor his memory. And the best way of doing that is by put putting SpaceShip Unity up where she belongs: In space. With us eager passengers on board.”

The launch of Beattie and other self-styled ‘average Joe’s and Joanne’s’ like him, on commercial vehicles, represents more than just a bunch of wealthy individuals taking an extravagant joy ride. For many centuries, before Yuri Gagarin became the first person to travel into space, humans have looked to the stars with awe and wonder. The dream of space travel predates all of those who made the first steps into space possible. In Western tradition, the first description of a flight to the Moon dates back to Ancient Greek in 190 AD, dreamed of by Lucian of Samosata.

Lucians writing, arguably our first piece of science fiction, would become a reality in the 20th century with the Apollo Program. In turn it fueled a generation who believed the early 21st century would see space travel for everyone. Pan Am took the bold move of taking reservations for future Moon flights. Even going as far as printing tickets for would-be customers. This was an ambition, which turned out to be before its time. But with the FAA license for Galactic, it takes us one step closer to the goal of space travel for all.

More than four decades after humans last walked on the Moon, the dream of passenger trips further afield, to our nearest celestial neighbor are still on offer. Space Adventures is proposing the opportunity for a ten-day circumlunar mission which uses proven Russian Space Vehicles to orbit within 100km of the Moon’s surface. At least eight space tourists are eyeing the $150 million moon trip aboard Russia’s Soyuz. The cost of such a mission type is beyond the reach of most, but so far Space Adventures have succeeded in sending the only private astronauts, or space tourists, into orbit around Earth. These seven private astronauts, trained for six months to fly on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Among them, Space Adventures co-founder and Space Angels Network member Richard Garriott. “I would absolutely travel to space again, price dependent, on-board a government or commercial certified operator, both are just fine.”

While the experience of traveling on government vehicles for private astronauts has been limited, as stated in the recent Space Angels Network Spacesuit Report the expectation of commercial spaceflight is that it will begin in the very near future. With it, those Apollo era ambitions of space travel for everyone are edging closer. While Virgin Galactic plans to offer flight by space plane, the alternative commercial vehicles are using rockets. And Galactic are not alone in moving closer to the goal of commercial passenger flights. In November 2015, Blue Origin successfully launched and landed the crew capsule and propulsion module of its New Shepherd vehicle. And founder Jeff Bezos has stated that the company will likely fly passengers in 2018, although further details remain limited.

More than anything, the trials and experimentation of this new commercial industry and the quest to send ‘regular’ passengers to space, is helping to open up an excitement and interest in the industry which hasn’t been seen since Apollo. From Felix Baumgartner’s jump from the edge of space in 2012 - which saw the largest ever live stream YouTube audience - to the vast public appetite for SpaceX’s launches and landing. People are becoming fascinated by space again and want to experience it. Be that through suborbital trips, visiting museums and exhibitions, or paying for experiences such as training, Zero-G flights, and balloons trips to the edge of space.

And it seems that more of us are able to go into space than previously thought. Whereas past studies of the G-forces experienced during spaceflight were limited to young healthy fighter pilots, today the Aerospace Medicine research team at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) has conducted several studies on ‘average people’ including older people and those with chronic medical conditions. “Our findings show that it will be only a rare few individuals who cannot medically undertake a suborbital space flight” says Professor of Aerospace Medicine James Vanderploeg from the study.

The type of training passengers undergo is also likely to change. For the seven private astronauts that have been to space, they were required to train for six months. But for shorter sub-orbital flights, this time could be dramatically reduced, depending on the vehicle the passenger is traveling in. “In general it will likely be limited to a few days prior to the space flight and cover such things as emergency escape, use of the oxygen system, communications, and training to withstand the G-forces” says Vanderploeg. Although for missions requiring pressure suits, passenger will likely need training in those too. This streamlined training is welcomed by Garriott who see’s a reduction in training time as more important than any other luxury that could be offered by commercial operator, helping to “increase consumer interest”.

As operations of commercial craft get closer, the role of training could form as much a part of the space tourism experience as the flight itself. For example, Virgin Galactic is planning a several-day training experience that is an integral part of the whole package.

However, even with the awarding of the license, there are still further steps to take for Galactic. Presently, the FAA license does not include passenger flights, something which will only be possible once the company can ‘successfully verify the integrated performance’ of SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. But it is a significant step nonetheless. Scaled Composites, the company that developed the first SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic, had an experimental permit from the FAA for its test flights.

And when the first passenger flights take place from one of the commercial companies, it will mark a pivot for space exploration. One which will see the number of people who have been to space leap forward and a renewed public interest in space exploration, that it is no longer just for the elite. As well as inspiring the imaginations of a new generation to push technology and innovation to explore further beyond Earth, just like during the Apollo era. For the first time the possibilities and experience of space will be open to everyone.

For Beattie, the timing is not an issue. “I probably should say 'I can't wait', but I can. I always have. Space travel has been a lifelong dream of mine, and it just got a big step closer to reality."

There’s never been a better time to get involved in commercial space. If you’re ready to start investing in private space companies, we invite you to apply for membership to Space Angels.

Sarah Cruddas is a Space Journalist, Broadcaster and Author with a background in astrophysics. She is the voice of space on British TV for channels including Sky News, Channel 5 and ITV. Specializing in space exploration she has reported on the industry from across the

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