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The New Space Race

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Near the end of a day full of speeches by scientists, entrepreneurs, and government officials during the 14th annual Space Access Society (SAS) conference in Phoenix, Reda Anderson approached the podium to deliver a brief address titled “A Customer’s Perspective.” The retired real estate investor and grandmother of two from Beverly Hills, Calif., was invited to speak at the April event because she is the first to sign a passenger contract with Rocketplane Kistler (RpK), an Oklahoma company that intends to fly her to suborbital space aboard its Learjet-based vessel. If Anderson found it intimidating to lecture before an audience of rocket scientists—many SAS participants are aerospace engineers, and this year’s attendees included a former space shuttle pilot—she hid it well as she told them what she expected from her adventure. “Why am I going? For the view and the experience,” said Anderson, who travels extensively. “I’ve seen the earth, but not completely. I don’t want to see every nook and cranny. It’s time to go up.”

Then she stated her nonnegotiables: “Safety. If it ain’t there, I ain’t going. No rate of risk is acceptable. Bring me back alive. What may look like a payload to you is a human to me. . . . Communication. I want to know what you’re doing. I want to go to the company and meet all the employees. I am relying on these people; my life is at stake. . . . Training. I want to be able to look out the window and understand what’s going on.”

Anderson’s flight could take place in fall 2007, provided that RpK finishes its spacecraft in December as anticipated, and that the flight testing (which will consume at least six months) culminates with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) granting RpK a license for commercial service. Assuming that every link in the chain of ifs has been converted to thens, Anderson will travel to Oklahoma late next year to prepare for her ride. RpK offers four days of preflight training: two at the FAA’s facilities in Oklahoma City, and two in Burns Flat, Okla., at the state’s spaceport, the former Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base. (It received its spaceport license from the FAA in June.)

Early on the morning of the fifth day, she and her fellow passenger (RpK has sold the seat, but it has not identified the ticketholder) will board the vessel while friends, family, and reporters watch from a nearby hangar. The ground crew will seat her and strap her into a four-point safety harness. Anderson will have had a negligible breakfast because the XP Spaceplane, which is built on the 5-foot-wide fuselage of a Learjet 25, lacks a bathroom. John Herrington, an Oklahoma native and retired U.S. Navy commander (known to his friends as Bone) who flew to the International Space Station (ISS) on the space shuttle Endeavour in 2002, will pilot the plane. He probably will have a copilot for the initial run; RpK intends to offer the copilot seat to a ticketed customer eventually. Anderson will sit behind the pilots, but she will be able to share most of their view because the Learjet’s window configuration will be retained. A video screen installed in the pilot’s seat back will allow her to access flight data and other information.
 
After everyone has been secured and the preflight check completed, the ground crew will seal the hatch, Herrington will taxi onto the spaceport’s 14,500-foot-long runway, and the onlookers will move to the mission control center to watch the takeoff on video monitors. Although it is a spacecraft, the plane will take off horizontally, like a business jet. Upon receiving permission to launch, Herrington will start the vessel’s pair of GE CJ-610 engines—which came with the Learjet and generate 3,000 pounds of thrust apiece—and begin the ascent. At an altitude of three to five miles, he will ignite the single rocket engine, which is powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene and generates 36,000 pounds of thrust.
 
The XP Spaceplane will be traveling at Mach 3.5, or more than 2,600 mph, when it passes the 150,000-foot mark, more than 28 miles above the Earth. At this point, Herrington will cut the engine and Anderson will begin floating. Her harness straps will slacken automatically, allowing her to hover inches above her seat and to turn 90 degrees to better enjoy the view through her window. When the vessel coasts to its apogee of 62.5 miles (100 kilometers), the altitude that is widely accepted as the border of space, Anderson will be able to see 600 miles in any direction; the heartland of the United States, from Montana to Louisiana, will spread before her, and she will savor the sight of dawn breaking over the Rocky Mountains. The weightlessness will last about four minutes and will begin to cease when the spacecraft, which Herrington will be steering through a large arc, descends to 150,000 feet. When gravity returns, it will pin Anderson to her seat with a force three to four times stronger than the Earth’s gravitational pull. Herrington will restart the jet engines at 20,000 feet and land the vessel as he would a conventional aircraft. The XP Spaceplane’s voyage will last about an hour and will have cost its two passengers as much as $250,000 apiece.

If that price seems too steep, you can shop around for a better deal. More than half-a-dozen companies have declared their intentions to fly customers to suborbital space (see “Readying for Takeoff,” page 112) in vehicles they will design or commission, and virtually all of these businesses—even those that decline to give a launch date—believe they will begin commercial service in the near future. “The next few years will probably be the most dynamic time in space since the Kennedy announcement,” says Chuck Lauer, RpK’s cofounder and vice president of business development, referring to President Kennedy’s 1961 declaration that the United States would send an astronaut to the moon before the decade ended. “But it’s not a government effort. It’s a commercial space race, with success measured in market share.”
 

The commercial suborbital flight market has been building for years, but the turning point came in 2004, when Burt Rutan’s experimental aircraft SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize, a competition that was created eight years earlier to stimulate the civilian spaceflight industry. Rutan claimed the bounty by sending his three-seat ship to the edge of space twice within two weeks—less than three months before the prize was going to expire, on January 1, 2005. A total of 26 teams ultimately registered to compete for the X Prize, and several of those evolved into companies that have entered the suborbital market. Rutan’s firm, Scaled Composites, was hired by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to supply a fleet of vessels that are based on SpaceShipOne’s technology.

A further indication of space tourism’s viability came in December 2004, shortly after Rutan’s winning flight, when the U.S. Congress passed a law to regulate the nascent industry. The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, which is in place through 2012, states, in effect, that the FAA will permit licensed launches of suborbital passenger flights and will intervene only if a serious or fatal accident occurs. “For the first eight years, we want to regulate passenger [and crew] activity with a very light touch,” says George Nield, deputy associate administrator with the commercial space transportation department of the FAA. “We don’t want to strangle [commercial suborbital flight] before it gets going, but we do want to work to ensure that the passengers understand what they’re getting into.”

The issue of passenger safety presents a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. The risks posed by regular commercial suborbital flights cannot be quantified because none have been flown; it is impossible to know how safe they will be until enough people participate. “You can talk about goals, but you can’t talk about achievements,” says Jeff Greason, president of XCOR, a 6-year-old California aerospace company. “The only way to build a good safety record is to allow risks to be taken.”

Despite her declaration in her SAS speech, Anderson explains later that she understands that flight safety is still a relative concept. “Death is a possibility, yes. But, once you accept that death is a possibility, you either commit or you do not commit. I committed,” she says. “Once committed, unless the facts change, it is a waste of life’s precious moments to regurgitate the facts used in making the commitment decision. If you regurgitate, you are not committed. If you are not committed, then sit down, get out of the way, and let someone get in line.”

The 66-year-old Anderson has visited 47 countries, seven continents, and places in between, including the wreck site of the Titanic. She says that she became “100 percent convinced that I wanted to go” to suborbital space in June 2004, when SpaceShipOne first reached the 62-mile barrier; days after the aircraft won the X Prize, Anderson signed a contract with RpK.
 
To pursue her goal of flying to suborbital space, she attended the Space Frontier Foundation’s 2004 conference, which was held that fall aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif. Following a speech by Rutan, friends of Anderson’s introduced her to RpK’s Lauer, who was chatting with a handful of people about his company, how it was different from Rutan’s, and what it was going to do. (RpK was called Rocketplane Limited then; it changed its name after acquiring the Kistler Aerospace Corp. earlier this year.)

Lauer greeted Anderson and continued talking. After about 10 minutes, she asked him for his business card, and he handed her one without breaking his conversational stride. “I saw her get a pen out and write on the back of the card,” Lauer recalls. “Then I saw her take out a dollar bill and wrap it around the card, and she said, ‘Here, look at this.’ ” She had written “#1 signed up Reda Anderson” on the business card and signed her name. Lauer, who had worked in real estate before founding Rocketplane, immediately understood that Anderson’s gesture represented a contract. “I looked at it,” he says, “looked at her, smiled, and said, ‘OK, I guess we sold our first seat.’ ”

The edge of space—Anderson’s destination—is hardly the final frontier. Most suborbital companies view these trips as baby steps toward orbital travel, voyages to the moon, and beyond. For that matter, tourism is not their sole focus; they expect to develop sidelines in cargo transport and military-related work. “I don’t think anyone can serve only a passenger market,” says XCOR’s Greason. “These vehicles are vastly different. They go to different altitudes and fly from different geographic areas. Some markets will emerge that no one can predict.”

But suborbital companies want to make a point along with a profit. Most consider themselves part of the NewSpace movement, a confederation of space-related businesses that boldly go where only governments have gone before. (During an SAS panel discussion on finding capital for such ventures, investor Steve Fleming defined a NewSpace company as “any aerospace company that has fewer than a thousand employees.”) Specifically, NewSpace proponents want to prove that private enterprise can reach space faster and more efficiently than NASA can. “There is no rational reason why space is different than any other business,” Greason says. “It really has been communism, a state-owned and -directed enterprise. But the perception that this was the only way it can be done has begun to wear off.”

The love-hate relationship that NewSpace leaders have with NASA was on display throughout the SAS conference. Jim Muncy of PoliSpace, an independent space policy consulting firm, joked in his evening lecture: “What’s the difference between the Marshall Space Flight Center [a NASA installation in Huntsville, Ala.] and Jurassic Park? One is a government facility overrun by dinosaurs, and the other is a movie.” Joking aside, suborbital companies will confront one challenge that NASA never had to: keeping customers happy. A six-figure payment and a few days to two weeks of training in the most remote regions of New Mexico, Oklahoma, or California will precede a ride that grants three to four minutes of weightlessness. Most carriers’ safety precautions will limit passengers to floating within their seat belts, and spending a minimum of $25,000 per minute to drift while restrained in a four-point harness could leave some of them feeling cheated. “This is the world’s tallest roller coaster. You rocket to 100 kilometers and come back down,” says Armadillo Aerospace founder John Carmack. “Space tourism is not a good word [for suborbital flight.] Some are overselling it, and some will be disappointed by it, and there might be a backlash.”

Anderson must wait at least a year before she can form her opinion, but for now, she is planning how to use her fleeting moments in zero gravity high above the planet’s surface. “I want to take a live flower and I want to let it go. I want to see the flower just there,” she told the SAS audience. “When I see that flower [on Earth], it will bring back the feeling I had when I was in space.” 

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