Space tourism

23 October 2014

Interview with

Gregg Maryniak, XPrize Foundation

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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