Sunday , February 28 2021

The WIRED guide to commercial human space flight

In the morning on December 13, 2018, Virgin Galactic WhiteKnightTwo descended an austere runway in Mojave, California, ready to take off. Spinning like an ordinary jet of passengers, the two-hull catamaran of an airplane passed by owner Richard Branson, who was standing flapping aviator palms on the sidewalk. But WhiteKnightTwo was not an airplane: the hook between the two hooves was a space called SpaceShipTwo, set to be the first private craft to regularly transport tourists away from this planet.

WhiteKnightTwo rumbled and stood up, preparing to climb to an altitude of 50,000 feet. From then on, the jet would release SpaceShipTwo; his two pilots would fire the engines and propel the ship into space.

"3 … 2 … 1 …" came the words on the radio.

SpaceShipTwo fell like an elegant, free stone.

"Fire, fire," one controller said.

At the command, the flame fired from the ship's engines. A contrail smoked over the folds of the mountains as the spacecraft flew up and up. Soon, both the contrail and the fire stopped: the SpaceShipTwo was simply floating. The arc of the Earth curved in its window, against the darkness of the rest of the universe. A hanging snowflake ornament hung on the microgravity of the cabin.

"Welcome to space," the base said. And with that, Virgin Galactic had flown its first astronauts, who were not the government-sponsored heroes of old but private citizens who worked for a private company.

For most of the history of spaceflight, humans have left these feats to governments. From the mid-century Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo days to the 30-year space shuttle program, NASA dominated US space navigation activities. But today, companies run by powerful billionaires – who have made a lot of money in other industries and are now using them to make star-studded dreams – are carrying the torch, or at least part of the fire.

Virgin Galactic, in turn, calls itself a tourism company, and space hopefuls often speak of philosophical elevation – the change of perspective that happens when humans see the Earth as a real planet in real space. Other companies want to help establish permanent residence on the Moon and / or Mars, and sometimes talk about destiny and salvation. There are many gestures toward the strength of the human spirit and the irrepressible exploratory nature of our species.

But let us not forget, of course, that there is money to be made theoretically; and the federal government is no longer piloting astronauts. After the shutdown of the space shuttle program in 2011, the US no longer had the ability to send humans into space and have since relied on Russia. But that is about to change: today, two private companies – Boeing and SpaceX – have contracts to transport human beings to the International Space Station.

But even before NASA's programs to send people into space began to dwindle, business tycoons recognized what they could do if they had their own private rockets. They could transport supplies to the Space Station for budget conscious government. They could launch satellites. They could take tourists on suborbital tours. They could foster industrial infrastructure in deep space. They could solve the moon and Mars. Humans can become the space-time-defying species they have always been destined to be, and travel often-or even live in the long term-away from Earth. It is exciting: After all, science fiction – this great predictor and creator of the future – tells us for decades that space is the next (the last) frontier, and we must (we can not) go there, but also live there.

Private space companies are taking small steps toward this large-scale, long-term presence in space, and 2019 is more promising than most years. But deadlines keep slipping: like cold fusion, private human space travel is perpetually just around the corner. Perhaps part of the delay is the fact that human space travel extended private human space travel – is an almost untested business model, and most of these companies profit a great deal from companies that have little to do with humans: generally, revenue-generating operations here and now involve schlepping satellites and nearby supplies by, not sending humans away. But since the most promising plans are backed by big-budget billionaires-and in a sense turned to other rich people-science fiction can nonetheless become a spatial fact.

The History of Private Human Space Flight

Today, the jet set capitalists connect to the New Space sector, although in the early days the advanced thinkers talked about "". You could say it all started in 1982, when a company called Space Services launched the first privately funded rocket: a modified Minuteman missile, christened Conestoga I (after the wagon, did you understand?). The flight was just a demonstration, implanting a fictitious cargo of 40 pounds of water. But two years later, the US passed the Commercial Spaces Release Act of 1984, opening the way for more private activity.

Human passengers boarded in 2001 when a financier named Dennis Tito bought a seat on a Russian Soyuz rocket and took $ 20 million, nearly eight days vacation to the Space Station. Space Adventures, which organized this expensive flight, would send six more astrodilantics to orbit the Russian Space Agency.

That same year, a guy named Elon Musk, about to get rich from the sale of PayPal, announced a plan called Mars Oasis. With his many resources, he wanted to increase public support for human settlements on the Red Planet, so that public pressure would prompt Congress to send a mission to Mars. Through an organization he founded called Life to Mars Foundation, Musk proposed the following plan of opening: a $ 20 million Mars landfill, carrying a greenhouse that could be filled with Martian soil, to be released perhaps in 2005.

US $ 6.8 billion

Potential value of NASA contracts with SpaceX and Boeing to bring astronauts to and from the Space Station.

This, it should be noted, never happened – in part because the cost of launch such a garden of the future was so high. A North American rocket would have cost him $ 65 million (about $ 92 million in 2018 dollars), a reconstituted Russian ICBM of about $ 10 million. A year later, Musk set out to lower the rocket barrier. Switching from "foundation" to "corporation," he started SpaceX, a rocket company with the explicit ultimate goal of housing Mars.

At first, Musk was not the only one who wanted to send people into space. The pilot (and then astronaut) Mike Melvill flew with SpaceShipOne, which resembled a bullet that grew in frog legs, into space in 2004. After the test flight and two subsequent trips, SpaceShipOne won an X-Prize of US $ 10 million. These flights brought together two dreams of the New Space: a private spacecraft and private astronaut pilots. After the victory, Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites developed the high-flying technology on the SpaceShipTwo. Revealed by Virgin in 2009, this passenger ship intended to send tourists into space … for the cost of an average house. (After all, why take a home forever when you can go to space for five minutes?)

US $ 3.5 billion

Value of NASA's first contracts with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (now part of Northrop Grumman) to provide supplies to the ISS from 2009 to 2016

Virgin Galactic has always kept its focus close to home and on short but frequent flights that remain suborbital. Musk, however, maintained his original Martian mission. After launching its first rocket into orbit in 2008, SpaceX has won a NASA contract with providing buses to and from the Space Station, and is still shipping cargo to the agency. But the startup actually got his legs in 2012 and 2013 when he launched a squatty rocket called Grasshopper. Although he did not jump up, he landed back on the launch pad, from where he could rise again (like, say, a grasshopper). This recyclability paved the way for current and reusable Falcon 9 rockets, which increased and decreased and helped transform the spirit of rocket science from dispensability to recyclability.

galactic virgin

From Virgin Records to Virgin Atlantic to mobile operator Virgin Mobile, Richard Branson made money around the block.

WhiteKnightTwo + SpaceShipTwo

The Virgin Galactic plane has a space plane that can carry up to six passengers and two pilots just above the edge of space, so they can experience a few minutes of weightlessness and incredible sight. Richard Branson hopes to climb up himself in the middle of this year, with tourists soon to follow.

Musk's goal, since the failure of Mars Oasis, has always been to cut launch costs. Today, SpaceX's Falcon 9 reusable rockets cost $ 50 to $ 60 million – still a lot, but less than $ 100 million more than some of its competitors. Reaching space, thought goes on, should not be the biggest barrier a space candidate faces. If SpaceX can do this, the company will – one day, theoretically – send to Mars the many shipments of supplies and humans that are needed to fulfill the "MAKE LIFE MULTIPLANETARY" slogan of Musk.

But the path to multi-planning has not always been good for SpaceX. Their reusable rockets fell into the ocean, tumbled into the sea, crashed into barges, tumbled into ships, fell into the air, spun, exploded in mid-flight, and exploded on the launch pad.

The true New Space course, however, has never been easy, and SpaceX is far from being the only company that has experienced failures. Virgin Galactic, for example, faced a tragedy in 2014 when pilot Pete Siebold and co-pilot Michael Alsbury were on the SpaceShipTwo under the WhiteKnight jet.

Blue Origin

Jeff Bezos, of Amazon's fame and fortune, is still very much married to space activities.

New Shepard

Blue Origin's reusable rocket will carry crews and payloads on suborbital flights of 11 minutes, landing as smoothly as the feather painted on its body. The goal is to send the first crew for this year.

New Glenn

Blue Origin says it wants this recyclable heavy-duty rocket to "build a road into space." This launcher will probably be released in 2021.

The SpaceShipTwo flight did not go as planned. SpaceShipTwo has a "broadcast mechanism" that, when unlocked and enabled, decelerates the ship so that it can land safely. But Alsbury unlocked it early and dragged the ship while its rockets still fired. Aerodynamic forces separated SpaceShipTwo, killing Alsbury. Siebold jumped, alive, to the floor. Some customers canceled. Most still wanted to go into space, although the industry has more risk and less regulation than low-lying commercial flights.

Meanwhile, another large corporation – Blue Origin – was quietly working out its plans for human mission. This heavenly venture, funded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, began in 2000 – before Musk started SpaceX – but remained rather stealthy for years. Then, in a test launch in April 2015, the New Shepard rocket, which would be reusable, took off. He successfully implanted a capsule but could not land. That November, however, a New Shepard did what it should: played back, beating SpaceX at that launching and landing target.

Blue Origin, like Virgin Galactic, wants to use its little rocket to send suborbital space tourists. And want, with larger, stick-like rockets, to help facilitate a permanent colony of the moon. Bezos suggested that heavy industry should happen on this planet, in places that already suck, but have mining resources. The first lunar landing, he says, could occur in 2023, facilitating an Earth that is more residential and industrial.

SpaceX also has big plans for 2023. The company announced last September that in 2023 it will send Japanese tycoon Yusaka Maezawa and a number of fellow artists on a trip around the moon. NASA has also hired the company and Boeing to transport astronauts to and from the ISS as part of the commercial crew program, which begins testing for humans later this year.

Still, despite all the enthusiasm surrounding these larger-looking companies, Virgin Galactic remains the only private company that actually sent a private person into space in a private vehicle.

Future of private spaceflight

The way these companies see the future, they (humbly, of course) will be the only one to normalize space travel – be it a longer journey than the Karman line or another celestial body. Space planes will carry passengers and experiment on suborbital points, playing back in less time than necessary to watch The right thing. Rockets will be launched and landed and launched again, sending satellites and transporting physical and biological loads to an industrial base on the Moon or the Martian base, where settlers will ensure that the species persists even if there is a nuclear (climatic) apocalypse ashore. firm. Homo sapiens will have manifested his destiny, he was the brave pioneer he always knew he was. And the idea that we do not have to be stuck in a cosmic spot forever is exciting!

But all these companies are companies, not philanthropic vision boards. To make life casually spatially and seriously interplanetary is, in fact, a plausible financial perspective? And, more importantly, is it really desirable?

Let's start with a discrete sub-orbital space tourism, Virgin Galactic type, and Blue Origin would like to offer. Some economists see this as quite feasible: if we know one thing about the world, it is that some subset of the population will always have a lot of money and will spend on legal things unattainable to the plebs. If such flights become routine, however, their price may fall, and space tourism may follow the trajectory of the commercial aviation industry, which used to be for the rich and is now home to Spirit Airlines. Some also speculate that longer orbital flights – and overnight stays in comfortable six-star space hotels (the extra star is for the spatial part) – can be followed.

Once there is a market for space hotels, more infrastructure can follow. And if you're going to build something for space, it may be easier and cheaper to build it in space, with space materials, rather than spending billions to throw all the materials you need. Maybe miners and mine makers could establish a protolony, which could lead some people to live there permanently.

Or not. Who knows? I can not see the future, and neither you, nor those billionaires.

But with long trips or permanent residence, the problems are more complicated than if money is possible or if it is possible to build a beautiful city square with lunar dust. The most complicated part of the exploration of human space will always be human.

We, weak creatures, have evolved in the this planet. Mutations and adaptations have come to make us uniquely suited to live here – and so only not suitable for living in space, or in Valles Marineris. It's too cold or too hot; there is no air to breathe; you can not eat potatoes grown in your own shit for the rest of your unnatural life. Their personal microbes can influence everything from digestion to immunity and humor, so scientists still do not understand it, and although they also do not understand how space affects the microbiome, it probably will not be the same if you live in an alien. crater as it would in his apartment.

Also, in low gravity, your muscles become loose. The fluids within you mingle strangely. Drugs do not always work as expected. The shape of your brain changes. Your mind is foggy. The back of his eyes flatten. And then there is the radiation, which can deteriorate the tissue, cause cardiovascular disease, tinker with the nervous system, cause cancer, or just induce radiation sickness until you die. If your body holds out, you can still lose it in your companions, be homesick Certainly be bored out of your skull on the journey and during the tedium and work to follow.

Perhaps there is a technological future in which we can mitigate all these effects. After all, many things that were previously unimaginable – from vaccines to quantum mechanics – are now well understood. But billionaires, for the most part, do not work on people's problems: when they talk about space cities, they leave out the details – and their money goes to physics, not to biology.

They also do not talk much about the cost or ways to compensate it. But Blue Origin and SpaceX both hope to collaborate with NASA (ie, use federal money) for their far-off projects from Earth, making this particular type of private space flight more publicPrivate partnership. They have already made many millions in contracts with NASA and the Department of Defense for short-term projects such as launching national security satellites and developing more infrastructure for this more often. Virgin, meanwhile, has a division called Virgin Orbit that will send small satellites, and SpaceX plans to create its own giant smallsat constellation to provide global coverage of the internet. And at least for the foreseeable future, their income is likely to continue to flow more from satellites than from infrastructure outside the world. In this sense, although they are the New Space, they are only providers of conventional governmental services.


Elon Musk made his first fortune at PayPal.

Hawk 9 + Dragon

SpaceX will also transport astronauts and accessories to the International Space Station for NASA and, after its journey, the Falcon will land itself, while the Dragon's capsule will be splashed. Bonus: The company is proud that passengers can set the internal temperature from 65 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. His first manned test could occur in mid-2019.

Super Heavy + Starcraft

Previously called BFR (Big Falcon Rocket or Big Fucking Rocket, depending on the type of person you are talking to), this spacecraft and its human capsule should carry 100 people and 150 tons of cargo to the Red Planet. Musk unveiled a smaller suborbital prototype in January, and its bright silver sides and its vintage sci-fi form look as if a 1950s restaurant dreamed that it had become a rocket. Your first test should occur sometime this year.

So if money is more stable nearby, why look any further than the Earth's orbit? Why not stick to the lucrative business of sending satellites or allowing communications? Yes, yes, the human spirit. Okay, of course, ability to survive. Both noble and energizing goals. But supporters may also be interested in creating international spatial states filled with people who could afford the trip (or perhaps contract workers who will work in exchange for the ticket). Maybe the celestial population joins a utopian society, free from the mess we've made on this planet. Humans could start from scratch somewhere else, scribble something new and better on tabula rasa extraterrestrial soil. Or perhaps, as on Earth, history would repeat itself, and human baggage would be the heaviest burden on colonial ships. After all, wherever you go, there you are.

Maybe we would look better as a species if we stayed at home and faced our problems directly in the eyes. That's the conclusion that science fiction author Gary Westfahl comes up with in an essay called "The Case Against Space." Westfahl does not think that innovation happens when you change the environment and escape your difficulties, but when you stay close and deal with the situation you have created.

United Launch Alliance and Boeing

No billionaires here. Only the military-industrial complex joining forces with itself. In the last 15 years, this rocket had a 100% success rate.

Atlas V + Starliner

The Atlas V rocket, manufactured by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, will join Boeing's CST-100 Starliner capsule to send astronauts and scientific experiments to the ISS. Starliner can fly 10 times as long as you get a six-month refractory period – for reconditioning and testing – between each trip. His first manned test could occur in mid-2019.

Moreover, most Americans do not think large-scale human space travel is a mandatory national duty, at least not with their money. According to a Pew survey in 2018, more than 60% of people say that NASA's top priorities should be to monitor the weather and observe the asteroids that destroy Earth. Only 18 and 13 percent think the same of a human journey to Mars or the moon, respectively. People, in other words, are more interested in caring for this planet, and preserve life in it, than in making some other world habitable.

But perhaps that does not matter: the story is full of billionaires who do what they want, and is full of twists and turns in society dictated by his direction. In addition, if even a fraction of a percent of the US population signed a long-term space mission, its spacecraft would still have the largest extraterrestrial settlement ever roamed the solar system. And even if it was not an oasis or a utopia, it would still be a great leap.

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Last updated on January 30, 2019

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