Virgin Galactic officially entered the satellite launch business this morning at the Farnborough International Air Show when founder Sir Richard Branson unveiled LauncherOne, an expendable two-stage rocket designed to blast off at high altitude from Virgin's carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo--the same mothership that will launch space tourists on suborbital spaceflights.
in 2012, two large, well-funded companies, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, will begin making regular journeys to suborbital and orbital space, commencing the post-NASA era of commercial space travel. But those companies will not be alone in their efforts.
Virgin Galactic and its thoroughly British CEO, Richard Branson, announced another milestone on their way to opening the world's first commercial spaceport: Construction is finished, and the terminal and hangar have been dedicated.
NASA has gone to great lengths to seed and cultivate the commercial space industry over the past few years, but it may want to be careful that it doesn’t make the grass look too much greener on the commercial side. Mike Moses, NASA’s deputy space shuttle program manager and former flight director--the guy who oversaw all shuttle operations over the last three years of the program--is jumping ship, heading over to Virgin Galactic to oversee operations at the space tourism front-runner.
The new post-shuttle NASA has said it aims to work more cooperatively with private space industry and outside sources of innovation in writing the next chapter in space exploration and science, and the agency is putting its money where its mouth is. After selecting 30 future technology proposals for funding earlier this week, NASA has now inked a number of much larger contracts with seven private space companies--including Virgin Galactic--to integrate and fly various technology payloads aboard their suborbital spacecraft.
Virgin Galactic just keeps on ticking off the milestones on its way to becoming the first commercial company to take tourists on high-altitude flights to suborbital space and return them safely through the atmosphere to Earth. In the video below, we actually get to see Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo (aka VSS Enterprise) making its first “feathered” flight.
Besides amateur camera-balloons, it's pretty difficult to get a viable science experiment into space. You need to buy a launch vehicle, license it, find a place to launch from, protect your payload, and get permission to actually launch, for starters. In the past, you might have partnered with NASA to do this, but it's never been easy to win federal support for a rocket or space station excursion, and it's about to get even harder after the space shuttles retire this summer.
But the transition away from the shuttle is promising for experimenters, as a new generation of privately built and operated spacecraft is poised to take over. The commercial space tourism industry will transform the way scientists study microgravity, offering lower prices and greater convenience than anything the government can provide. Scientists will no longer need to apply to NASA to do their experiments. Even better, they won't have to join the astronaut corps to get to space in person, a paradigm shift that could make cutting-edge research much more widely accessible.
The commercial space industry has booked its first science expeditions, the Southwest Research Institute announced today. At least two researchers have tickets to fly on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, with another six seats on reserve, and the team also reserved six flights on an XCOR Lynx I rocket plane.