Science Interviews


Thu, 23rd Oct 2014

Space tourism

Gregg Maryniak, XPrize Foundation

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Aeroplanes might be getting much more passenger-friendly but it looks as though SpaceShipTwothe destination of choice for this century will be space. 

Make your reservations now though - more than 700 people - reportedly including astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and pop star Justin Bieber - are waiting to gain official status as Space Cowboys, each forking out in the region of a quarter of a million Dollars to hop aboard Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo.

Ten years ago this month, SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize and Virgin Galactic have since been developing it to form SpaceShipTwo.

But SpaceShipTwo wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the X Prize, which was a not-for-profit organisation that awards money to radical ideas that will bring about breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.

Gregg Maryniak, founder and director of XPrize, recently took a tour of SpaceShipTwo with Virgin's Richard Branson...

Gregg -  Well, it’s really huge.  SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari XPRIZE, is the size of a 4-person light plane that you'd find at an airport any place in the world.  SpaceShipTwo is quite a bit larger. Whereas SpaceShipOne could fly you and me and one other person to 100 km altitude, if we’re flying on SpaceShipTwo, we have two pilots and six people can fly in the back and they can unstrapp and float around in zero gravity for about five minutes during a flight.  So, it’s a radically larger aircraft.

Chris -  So the bottom line is, strapped into your seat on SpaceShipTwo, but it’s on the back of a bigger vehicle, an airplane, which gets you airborne in the first place.  How does it get into space?  

Gregg -  It hangs actually below the carrier aircraft, which has two fuselages.  So some of your friends might get to see you off from altitude. It drops away from the carrier plane, after about an hours flight to get to launch altitude.  It ignites its rocket engine, which is essentially powered by the same material that you have in the tires of your car, made to burn very rapidly using an exotic oxidiser that is usually called laughing gas, nitrous oxide.  The nitrous makes the synthetic rubber burn very rapidly and that provides the thrust to accelerate you to the speeds required to get you to 100 km which is the so-called Kármán line, the line above which everyone agrees you're in space.

 Chris -  How are the people recovered from space?  They have their 6 minutes of floating around.  They, presumably, are not going to re-dock with the aircraft that got them halfway there in the first place.  They’ve got to get down to the ground.  How do you recover SpaceShipTwo?

Gregg -  SpaceShipTwo glides to a landing on the surface of the Earth.  So, it is an unpowered glider.  It will land at places like Mojave where it’s been landing for its test flights and also, a brand new space port in New Mexico, in the vicinity of White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, south of Albuquerque.

Chris -  Tell us about the danger side of this.  What will happen to the people if something goes wrong and is there a chance that’s something is going to go wrong?

Gregg -  These people are subjecting themselves to something that is more dangerous than driving around in cars.  Probably, more dangerous than flying themselves around in a light aircraft, probably, less dangerous than scaling tall mountains, which people do all the time.  But it is not a risk-free activity. These people will be real pioneers and in my book, heroes.  

They’ll be doing the same exact thing that folks like Allen Shepard and Gus Grissom did in 1961, the year that humans first went into space.  Since then less than 600 people have flown to space.  So, the 700 folks who have made deposits to fly on SpaceShipTwo will double the population of human beings that have had the opportunity to see the Earth from space.  

They're going to do something else.  The reason that we did the XPRIZE was not so rich white people could fly in space – although they will.  It’s so that we can have a completely different financial basis for doing space flight and open up space for lots of useful purposes for all of us on Earth.  

The economic problem with space flight is there's not enough of it.  In a really great year, there are maybe 15 or 20 commercial satellites for the entire world that need to be launched.  So, if there were only 15 or 20 airplane take-offs in a year, none of us could afford to fly.  We, back 15 or 16 years ago, were thinking: what's the perfect ideal commercial payloads of the future that will require thousands of take-offs and landings maybe even a week?  We realised, it’s us, people, self replicating carbon based payloads that you can make using common things you find around the house.

Chris -  So, it’s your view then that the idea of pushing forward and making this a tourist thing is that the money will follow the people.  This will open up new opportunities.  

Gregg -  Absolutely, there are many.  There's not any one specific one, although there are some huge ones.  The problem is, the cost of getting even just our tools in the space right now is about £4,000 a kilogram.  So, it’s really expensive.  We’ve got to get those costs and the way they do it is to do more of it.  That's what space tourism will be.  It’ll be a stepping stone to a large array of future opportunities.  We’re already seeing it as a result of our XPRIZE.  There are now some re-usable space vehicles that have flown literally hundreds of times to take scientific payloads up and back, whereas the normal rocket used for that purpose, flies once or statistically, a little bit less than once because they’re not all successful.  

Chris -  Will you be getting a ticket?

Gregg -  I hope so.  I won’t get one when the price is what it is today.  It’s a bit expensive for my taste, but many of the various providers that are in this area have said that their initial fee will come down considerably, maybe as much as the factor of 4 or 5 over the initial prices.  So, when the cost of making a once in a lifetime trip to space to see the earth from space is about the cost of getting a midrange new car, I think there will be many people who will do it.  In fact, the studies indicate that you can maximise your profit as a business entity if the cost is somewhere in the vicinity of about £12,000.

Chris -  There's an interview in the Daily Telegraph, one of the British broadsheets, this weekend with a Chinese businessman who’s just bought one of the ticket and he appropriately enough is called, in Chinese, the equivalent of Sky-walker!

Gregg -  That’s lovely.  How nice is that?  Hopefully, he won't have to do any walking at all during his flight.  Maybe floating would be a better name for him – Sky-Floater.


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You'd have to pay me more than that to get me to go up in one of those. Five minutes of floating about in other people's puke! No thanks! David Cooper, Wed, 29th Oct 2014

Most of the current generation of "space tourism" is sub-orbital flights.  Just hit the edge of space, then come back down. 

A quarter million dollars seems pretty expensive to say that one has touched the edge of space. 

NASA's rocket explosion two days ago is a humble reminder of the dangers inherent in LEO, or higher launches. CliffordK, Thu, 30th Oct 2014

I'd like to be able to see the night sky without any of the atmosphere in the way, but I suspect you'd see it better from high altitude while still standing on the planet rather than trying to see it through a glass window from a moving platform with everything flying about inside it. Being weightless would be fun, but you can get that in a more conventional plane. I don't know how the cost compares, but I suspect the plane's a lot cheaper per minute of weightlessness, and probably less polluting too. David Cooper, Thu, 30th Oct 2014

One of Virgin Galactic's test rockets exploded today, killing one, and injuring one.  Fortunately there were no passengers on the plane/rocket, but it is reminder that Space is a dangerous environment to get to. CliffordK, Fri, 31st Oct 2014

It will commence as soon as it becomes profitable to go to space, and there is a place to visit.  the way it is now, you pay a few million dollars just to send a few minutes in micro gravity.  woopdy do 

If for example we start mining the moon for helium 3 then perhaps there would be regular visits to the moon's surface with something out there to go and see. mining missions would start the space economy which would be followed by space tourists.  A tourist group would then be able to "tag along" to see the moon and the mining base(s). You could be a real astronaut and do something worth spending a few million on.

It's very simple, There is "very little business intensive" to go away from earth to the moon or mars or anywhere else.  because there is no money to be made out there (or so it seems) the only thing which would be worth going to the moon to mine is helium 3 which hits the moon's surface via solar wind. it is extremely lite and extremely valuable. ScientificSorcerer, Tue, 4th Nov 2014

We do need to move out to Mars and the moons of the gas giants, but we've got a few billion years to play with first, and at some point we might want to jump star (good opportunities may come when we merge with M31). Our priority should be to dig in (underground zoos, etc.) and make sure we can survive gamma ray bursts and the like here on Earth.

But, the space plane toy that's nearly ready may be good for film makers if it allows steadier weightlessness than can be filmed in the Vomit Comet. David Cooper, Tue, 4th Nov 2014

The latest comments seem to indicate that it was not a engine failure that caused the crash but premature deployment of the landing mode. syhprum, Wed, 5th Nov 2014

We need it to be safer before space hotels are built.  Safer from micrometeorites and other damaging debris, as well as from damaging radiation.  Having though a space hotel would be the equivalent of an Eifel Tower to inspire the imagination.  Look at the technology inspired by that elegant structure, merely because it changed our point of view. 

More than just a technical marvel I believe a space hotel would be fun.  Imagine a swimming pool which is just a large globule of water suspended zero G in a chamber, into which you can enter or exit from any point on its circumferential surface.  Imagine you enter your suite at a comfortable 95 percent gravity, but at a touch of a button, the entire room moves in the direction of the hub of the spinning station allowing its guests to experience a night in zero G.  Imagine one dining room with an unobstructed view of the expanse of the Earth's surface, while another dining room provides diners a brilliant view of our closest stellar neighbors.  Expectant_Philosopher, Fri, 14th Nov 2014

The water-sphere would not hold-together with people splashing-about in it , see ... RD, Fri, 14th Nov 2014

The pleasures of swimming are the freedom to dive from a considerable height without hurting yourself, followed by the experience of weightlessness. The downside is trying to move in a viscous medium and the inability to breathe it. You can't dive in zero-g, only propel your already weightless self at constant speed into this dangerous blob.

When swimming in a gravitational field you can find your way to the surface by following the bubbles of your breath, and if you stop swimming you will float to the surface anyway. Not so in space. The luxury pool will soon fill with dead bodies. alancalverd, Sat, 15th Nov 2014

I think it makes sense to use our moon as a stepping stone to get to other planets and moons, so I would expect the first colonies to be on the moon.

Part of space tourism may be having a place to go.  Space Station, Space Hotel, or Lunar Colony.  I find it doubtful many people would spend a decade traveling to Mars and back for "tourism".

However, as far as space tourism.  Consider the Saturn V.
Capacity: 3 people.  Destination Moon.
Fuel: 530,100 gallons

Now, if a person drives a car 1,000,000 miles in a lifetime, at 20 mpg, that comes out to about 50,000 gallons of fuel WHEW!!! 

So, the one trip to the moon takes about 3 lifetimes worth of fuel per person.  Not to mention the construction of the rocket, and the aluminum and other materials that go into it.

It may never become economical to "tour" space, although there will always be some people with more money than brains who may choose to do it.  The majority of trips beyond our moon will likely be one-way colonists.
CliffordK, Sat, 15th Nov 2014

As far as swimming in space, one could certainly use scuba gear to navigate around a tank with an airlock.  Or, if the tank was half full of water, it would probably often be around one side of the tank or another.  A person should be able to swim in it with some training.  Just learn to recognize how to get back to the surface, no mater the orientation.  Or perhaps add a bubbler, so one could just find an air bubble (and hope it wasn't full of CO2).

What is the surface tension like?  Perhaps a person could "walk on water".  Say you lathered yourself up with some kind of hydrophobic grease, one should be able to float on the surface like a waterbed without the covering. 

Water can be vital for everything from fuel to drinking to making air, but building a swimming pool in space beyond what is necessary to maintain a space station may be the ultimate excess, unless, of course, the water supply varies, and the pool might be biggest just after supply runs.

One would expect a large, mostly closed system if a large space station was ever built.  I suppose water might be a good way to store an emergency oxygen supply for in the event of traumatic decompression. CliffordK, Sat, 15th Nov 2014

Swimming in space might be one way of maintaining muscle tone, but the existing bungee multigyms are just as effective and take up less space and mass.

As for walking on water, the entire concept of support or floating is meaningless in zero-g. You could remain motionless an inch above the surface, or a million miles from it, for as long as you like.  alancalverd, Sat, 15th Nov 2014

What are we to do with all this Helium 3 that we are supposed to be mining on the Moon if we store it until the fusion reactors are built it will probably all have decayed due to radio activity. syhprum, Sat, 15th Nov 2014

but then neither Wikipedia nor I can claim infallibility. alancalverd, Sat, 15th Nov 2014

but then neither Wikipedia nor I can claim infallibility.

Perhaps it is a pessimistic view of the world, and we may not achieve 3He fusion for another few billion years.  At which point, leakage from storage vessels would be a greater concern than radioactive decay.

Tritium (3H), of course, does decay rather quickly. CliffordK, Sat, 15th Nov 2014

We need the space elevator to make more progress with space travel. The biggest cost is getting things off the Earth due to the enormous amounts of energy required, but a space elevator could be solar powered and would use very little energy to run. The big question though is, what is the risk of it being destroyed by meteoroids? David Cooper, Sat, 15th Nov 2014

The space elevator would take our materials to their absolute limits  with essentially no safety margin.

Assuming the elevator was extended into the troposphere, it would also have to contend with:

Meteors and micrometeors
Space Junk
High Energy Charged Particles (solar wind and cosmic rays)
Atmosphere Resistance
Wind and storms on our planet, plus weathering

Plus, of course, the cost of getting thousands, or millions of tons of carbon into the sky.

The space elevator is a wonderful idea, and may work, but don't count on it coming any time soon.  Perhaps the technology will be more applicable to other planets, or our moon, despite its slow rotation period. CliffordK, Sat, 15th Nov 2014

You'd start with a thin one and use that to lift a thicker one, so the most energy intensive part of it would be getting the initial thin one up to geostationary orbit from where it would be lowered. I've heard that there's theoretically twice as much strength available in the best possible fibres than the minimum necessary for a cable to support its own weight, so it may be workable. David Cooper, Sat, 15th Nov 2014

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