U.S. Human Suborbital Launch
Many countries and organizations have floated plans for human suborbital spaceflight. However, there are very few building suborbital launch vehicles for this purpose, and even fewer…
The promise of humans routinely traversing space for the purposes of business and pleasure has been around for nearly as long as…
NASA’s efforts with its Commercial Crew Program and Space Launch System primarily focus on launching humans into Earth orbit and beyond. However, other organizations and companies are pursuing the goal of reusable suborbital launch vehicles for humans.
Private companies are developing suborbital reusable launch vehicles as well. Virgin Galactic flight-tested its SpaceShipTwo crewed suborbital vehicle in 2014. The second of the year’s powered test flights of SpaceShipTwo ended in a crash, with the vehicle breaking up mid-flight and killing one pilot. In spite of the tragedy, Virgin Galactic’s ## customers remain committed to their reservations for a flight aboard SpaceShipTwo, with tickets costing $## per seat.
Several crewed, reusable suborbital vehicles have been under development during the past decade. These vehicles are being designed and built by commercial companies to carry paying passengers to the edge of space, enabling them to experience microgravity for minutes at a time. When operational, these vehicles will provide the most affordable access to space for passengers. Although ticket prices of $## to $## are certainly not within most people’s personal budgets, they represent a drastic discount from the $## to $## million paid by the most recent private visitors to the ISS.
A new aspect of space infrastructure is the development of suborbital reusable launch vehicles (RLVs). Unlike sounding rockets, these vehicles are designed to land intact and be flown again. Stimulated by the $## million Ansari X PRIZE, won in 2004 by Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne vehicle, several companies are actively developing such vehicles to serve space tourism, research, and other applications. The technical approaches of the companies vary, from vehicles that take off and land horizontally on runways to vehicles that launch and land vertically.
Although no suborbital human-rated vehicles flew in 2009, there was considerable progress by several companies actively developing such vehicles. Among the most visible of these was the formal unveiling in December 2009 of SpaceShipTwo, a suborbital vehicle built by The Spaceship Company, a joint venture of Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites. The event culminated a year of continued development of SpaceShipTwo and its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo. In May 2009, Virgin Galactic announced the beginning of tests of the rocket motor that will power SpaceShipTwo on its suborbital flights. The hybrid rocket motor uses a solid fuel and liquid nitrous oxide oxidizer developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation, the company that developed the rocket motor for SpaceShipOne.
The SpaceShipTwo vehicle, scheduled to begin commercial service by 2010, is the product of The Spaceship Company, a joint venture between Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic. The design of SpaceShipTwo is similar to that of SpaceShipOne, the only suborbital spacecraft with a demonstrated capacity for carrying humans. A carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, unveiled in July 2008, is designed to carry SpaceShipTwo to launch altitude and release the spacecraft, which will then ignite rockets to achieve suborbital altitude before returning to the Earth. SpaceShipTwo can accommodate up to six passengers and two pilots. In addition to human suborbital spaceflight, Virgin Galactic has explored the idea of launching suborbital cargoes aboard SpaceShipTwo, such as U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climatology experiments.