The Science of Sustainability

Aviation Authorities Prepare for Space Tourism

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Space travel will take off in the U.S. in the near future. Meanwhile, at least one part of the experience – weightlessness – can be achieved on an airplane flight by a company called Zero-G. (Courtesy Dan Miller)

Reported for KQEDnews.org

Space tourism – once the stuff of sci-fi novels and the Jetsons – is nearly here.

Several private companies are planning to offer the public rides into space starting in the next two to five years. The accommodations won’t be as lavish as in the movies or on television, but the Federal Aviation Administration has already started to prepare for a future in which airplanes and spaceships will share the air, and private companies will play a bigger role in space transportation of all kinds.

Last month, the FAA created a think tank to bring together industry, government and seven universities – among them Stanford – to conduct research and propose regulations for commercial space travel. The Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation will be located at New Mexico State University, in Las Cruces.

The idea of private space travel may sound like fun, but the potential challenges it brings are deadly serious, experts say.

Among them: How can rockets and airplanes safely share the air? What kind of floating junk might spacecraft run into? How fit do private citizens need to be to go into space? And just how good of a business is space tourism?

“If you start to have launches once a day rather than once a month, and they occur in the middle of the nation rather than at the coasts, this could change how you manage your air traffic,” said Scott Hubbard, a Stanford professor of aeronautics and astronautics and former director of NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View.

Sharing the air

Currently, only 20 to 30 spacecraft are launched in the United States each year, said Stanford professor of aeronautics and astronautics Juan Alonso, who will be conducting research for the FAA along with Hubbard. They leave from launching pads on the coasts – at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in Santa Barbara County, and Kennedy Space Center, near Orlando, Florida – to minimize the impact of any accident.

Communication satellites are regularly launched by private companies on rockets like this one at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Credit: Boeing)

“Because it’s so limited, we don’t have to come up with a particular system to not collide or disturb the traffic,” Alonso said. The FAA simply creates a temporary flight restriction along the spacecraft’s path so that airplanes won’t fly into the area during the few minutes it takes for the rocket to lift off.

But in the next 15 years, as the number of space flights grows and more of them depart from specialized space travel airports located inland, in places like New Mexico, managing air traffic control will become a more complex job. And today’s tools could fall dangerously short.

“Air traffic management is based on principles that were developed 50 years ago,” said Stanford’s Alonso. “Air traffic controllers get a plan and they direct the flights. In general, only the controllers know where all the airplanes are.”

This is because the system is based on radar, a technology by which dishes on the ground emit signals that bounce off of moving objects and send back information about their location and speed.

“Some areas of the world aren’t covered by radar,” said Alonso. “And if there’s a mountain between the dish and the object, it doesn’t work.”

The FAA is already planning to replace its radar-based air traffic control system with one that uses satellite information, said FAA spokesperson Laura Brown. A satellite-based system will enable aircraft to share information on their positions and provide a much more precise picture of where everything is. It also would make it possible to create tools that could simulate the likely trajectories of airplanes and spaceships, said Alonso.

Risky business

The biggest difference in regulating space flight and air flight is that the FAA currently ensures the safety of airplanes and passengers by requiring things like regular repairs and safety equipment. That won’t be the case with space flight, which will be treated more like an adventure sport. When the first paying customers go up to space, they’ll have to sign an informed consent form.

“It’s very similar to skiing,” said John Gedmark, executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in Washington, D.C., which represents some 30 companies. “Whenever anyone goes skiing, they have to sign a waiver that shows that they understand the risks that they’re about to take.” He said that his group is developing a form that would be used on the first space flights.

The difference in safety requirements between air flights and space flights is meant as a way to allow the new industry room to develop, said FAA spokesperson Brown. It’s also a reflection of space flight’s risks.

Multi-day space trips, like the ones that this Boeing spacecraft might one day perform, will carry more risk than short flights. (Artist rendering credit: Boeing)

“Flying on a commercial space vehicle won’t be considered as safe as flying in a commercial airplane when operations first start,” said Brown. “But just as in the early days of aviation, some people are willing to take those risks.”

And even after thousands of space flights, whizzing away on a rocket is likely to never be as safe as flying in a plane, said the industry’s Gedmark.

The chance of a plane suffering an accident is one in a million, said Stanford’s Scott Hubbard, while manned space launches have been about 95 to 96 percent successful since they first started 40 years ago.

“So that means you had a 5 percent chance of something very wrong happening,” said Hubbard.

Two of the companies leading the commercial space business are Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Both have been putting satellites into orbit since the 1960s and helped build the space shuttle for NASA. Now they and about a dozen newer, smaller companies are poised to play a bigger role in space.

Some companies will take over transportation of crew and cargo to the International Space Station after NASA launches the space shuttle for the last time in 2011. Among them are SpaceX, a company in Hawthorne, California, owned by entrepreneur Elon Musk, also the founder of the Palo Alto-based electric car company Tesla.

Meanwhile, in April, President Obama announced a new space policy that increases the role of private industry in space transportation and calls for spending $5.8 billion over five years to support commercial space travel. The Senate approved a NASA budget that allots this amount, but negotiations are underway with the House, which is less supportive of private efforts. [UPDATE: On Sept. 30, the House approved a bill that authorizes $1.4 billion for commercial space transportation over three years. The final amount will be determined by legislation that still needs to be approved, said NASA spokesperson Bob Jacobs.]

Other private companies are focusing on building spacecraft to carry tourists on short flights in which they would achieve weightlessness, but not orbit the Earth. And some like Boeing are combining transportation to the space station with tourism. The company hopes to sell tickets on its planned flights to the space station, just as the Russians have done on eight of their missions to raise funds for their space program.

Shorter, but safer

The safety of space flight will vary depending on how far into space passengers venture. And that will depend on how much they can afford, though more money might actually increase the risk.

Starting at $200,000, Virgin Galactic is offering space tourists tickets for a two-hour trip that will take them 60 miles up to the edge of space. They’ll float around surrounded by darkness – stars don’t twinkle in space – and they’ll be able to snap photos of the Earth. These flights are called suborbital because the spacecraft doesn’t go into orbit around the Earth the way that a flight to the International Space Station would. Virgin Galactic has collected $45 million in deposits from 330 people, and intends to fly its first space tourists sometime in 2012, the AFP news agency reported this week.

Virgin Galactic tested its SpaceShipTwo spacecraft in July above the Mojave Desert. The spaceship is in the middle, carried by a vehicle with two fuselages. (Credit: Mark Greenberg)

The weightless experience would last only a few minutes, said Stanford’s Hubbard.

That type of short flight will be far less risky than longer space trips because the rocket won’t need as much energy to launch and won’t be coming back through the atmosphere as fast, said Hubbard.

Short flights also won’t be likely to cause the health problems that longer space trips can trigger, said Millie Hughes-Fulford, former space shuttle astronaut and University of California-San Francisco professor of biochemistry and biophysics. On trips lasting from nine days to 6 months, humans and animals have been found to suffer a whole host of physical effects.

“Loss of bone has been verified, loss of immune function, loss of muscle strength,” she said. “And humans don’t regain bone that they lose in orbit.”

Million-dollar diaper

Still, Boeing is betting that a few people will want to make the longer trip. Those with several million dollars to spare have so far only had the opportunity to fly to the International Space Station on board a Russian spacecraft. They soon might be able to board a U.S. vehicle.

Boeing’s seven-person spacecraft, called the CST-100, will be cozy, with three people sitting above four others inside the capsule.

“If you stood up, your head would be about to hit the ceiling,” said Keith Reiley, Boeing’s commercial crew development program manager. But once you were floating around, he said, it would feel “more roomy.”

Boeing's spacecraft would seat seven. (Credit: Boeing)

It would take eight hours to get to the space station, which is in orbit about 260 miles from Earth. Diapers would be provided for “number one,” said Reiley. As for “number two,” the facilities would be located behind a privacy curtain.

Boeing isn’t ready to say how much tickets will be. It depends on the market the company finds, Reiley said. But judging by the almost $40 million the Russian space agency charged Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté to travel to the space station in 2009, those could be some very expensive diapers.

Boeing is designing the spacecraft in Houston and Hawthorne, California, with $18 million in stimulus funds. If NASA decides to move forward with the vehicle, Boeing would deliver it in 2015.

Since NASA only needs four of the seats, the company has partnered with the Virginia-based Space Adventures to market the rest of the seats to private individuals, companies, non-governmental organizations and federal agencies besides NASA. Space Adventures already markets the trips on board the Russian spacecraft. Boeing’s idea in following the Russian model is to bring down the cost of missions for NASA, Reiley said.

Floating on the cheap

For those who have $5,000 of expendable income, the experience of weightlessness is already available. Space Adventures, through its Virginia-based company called Zero-G, provides short airplane trips that create weightlessness without the need to travel to space.

Berkeley-based venture capitalist Dan Miller took his first Zero-G trip four years ago, flying out of San José, and liked weightlessness so much that he returned with his 12-year-old son, on a trip leaving from Las Vegas.

Dan Miller experiences weightlessness on board a Zero-G flight. Astronauts train on similar flights. (Courtesy Dan Miller)

“It was peaceful, calm,” he said. “It felt like a very natural state to be.”

Weightlessness, as it turns out, isn’t the result of escaping the gravitational pull of the Earth. In fact, the Earth’s pull is so strong that it keeps the Moon orbiting around it.

Zero-G’s modified Boeing 727 jets climb about 6 miles up into the air, then pitch the nose. As passengers fall with the plane, nothing resists their mass the way that the Earth offers resistance when our feet are planted on it. That’s why they’re able to float around an area of the plane where the seats have been removed.

“It’s the exact same weightlessness that astronauts experience,” said Miller, who wanted to be an astronaut as a child. On Zero-G’s planes, the experience lasts 30 seconds, repeated 12 to 15 times, as the plane climbs and falls.

So what’s next for Miller?

“I would prefer to go orbital because you’re living weightless for a few days,” he said.

And the view isn’t shabby either, said former astronaut Hughes-Fulford, who spent nine days on board the space shuttle Columbia in 1991.

“Take your camera,” she said encouragingly. “You get one life, you should use it how you want to – with your family’s agreement.”




In this artist rendering of Boeing's planned flight, the CST-100 spacecraft docks to a private space station built by Las Vegas company Bigelow Aerospace.



More video:
Watch our QUEST story about LCROSS, a NASA mission that could pave the way for a moonbase.

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Gabriela Quirós

About the Author ()

Gabriela Quirós is a TV Producer for KQED Science & Environment. She started her journalism career in 1993 as a newspaper reporter in Costa Rica, where she grew up. She won two national reporting awards there for series on C-sections and organic agriculture, and developed a life-long interest in health reporting. She moved to the Bay Area in 1996 to study documentary filmmaking at the University of California-Berkeley, where she received master’s degrees in journalism and Latin American studies. She joined KQED as a TV producer when QUEST started in 2006 and has covered everything from Alzheimer’s to bee die-offs to dark energy. She has shared two regional Emmys, and four of her stories have been nominated for the award as well. Independent from her work on QUEST, she produced and directed the hour-long documentary Beautiful Sin for PBS, about the surprising story of how Costa Rica became the only country in the world to outlaw in-vitro fertilization.