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Commercial access to suborbital space still on the horizon


Virgin Galactic

BROOMFIELD, COLORADO — In a packed hotel ballroom within sight of the Rocky Mountains, entrepreneurs and researchers gathered on 3 June to discuss their sky-high dreams for commercial spaceflight. One day soon, they say, private spaceships will zip aloft on a daily or even hourly basis, for a brief taste of zero gravity in suborbital space. Tourists will line up for rides, and scientists will hop on board to do planetary science, materials research and even human physiology studies.

The only problem? Commercial suborbital flights remain ever so slightly in the future. And that leaves researchers twiddling their thumbs as they wait for their rides to be ready.

“It takes a while in the space business,” says Alan Stern, an associate vice-president at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and a driving force behind the fourth annual Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference.

At the first such conference in 2010, the head of XCOR Aerospace predicted that “by the end of 2011 or beginning of 2012 you’re going to see spaceports struggling to deal with a flight rate that’s completely unprecedented”. Today there are eight US spaceports licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration, but very little action.

So what’s taking so long? Mostly funding problems. NASA has provided much of the seed money to get commercial spaceflight going, because the agency sees it as a way to access space more cheaply and competitively in the future. But in a Skype talk at the conference, deputy administrator Lori Garver ticked off some of the ways that NASA has fallen shy of its own goals. Three years ago she promised meeting attendees US$15 million annually; congressional belt-tightening reduced that to about $10 million.

NASA also combines its fledgling suborbital research programme with payloads flown on balloons, sounding rockets and airplane flights — which mean extra competition for limited dollars. This ‘flight opportunities programme‘ has picked seven vendors for commercial suborbital flights, including UP Aerospace, which is planning a 21 June launch of an unmanned rocket. “We’re doing what we said we would do, for the most part,” Garver said. “We all wish things were coming around even faster.”

Commercial suborbital flights seem to be always on the verge of breaking through to reality. XCOR itself hopes to conduct the first flight test of its manned spaceplane, the Lynx, by the end of this year. Stern’s institute has bought seats on future Lynx flights for him and two other scientists to conduct experiments.

In April, the company Virgin Galactic did conduct the first rocket-powered test of its manned SpaceShipTwo craft, breaking the sound barrier above the Mojave spaceport in California (pictured). And one month earlier, Masten Space Systems also tested an unmanned vertical-landing rocket called Xombie.

But another dash of cold water looms on the horizon, says Andrew Nelson of XCOR. Last month, the US State Department proposed adding “man-rated sub-orbital, orbital, lunar, interplanetary or habitat” spacecraft to the country’s Munitions List, which includes sensitive technologies such as military equipment and nuclear weapons. If the proposal is adopted, Nelson says, “it wouldn’t mean XCOR can’t export its spacecraft — it just makes it a heck of a lot harder”. That could stifle a burgeoning industry before it even gets off the ground, he says.

Plus keep suborbital scientists warming the benches for that much longer. “There’s a little bit of impatience, which I think is natural,” Stern says. “But I’m very optimistic. The world is about to change very rapidly as these vehicles come online.”


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