Commercial space travel has long been on the horizon, but in 2014 in collaboration with NASA, it looks like the dream is finally going to be realized. So far successful commercial space flight undertakings have been limited to the Russian firm Space Adventures. Dennis Tito, an American businessman was the first commercial tourist to visit the Mir Space Station on board the Soyuz spacecraft. Mark Shuttleworth and Gregory Olsen are the only other tourists to the space station. The price for a seat on board the Soyuz spacecraft was in the range of $20-40 million. Russia halted the program in 2010 owing to an increase in the number of crew members in the space station. Since then there has been a lull in commercial space travel. However, all that looks set to change soon.
In 2013 the leading US companies in the field of commercial space travel have made great progress towards launching astronauts into a low earth orbit. This year NASA’s four commercial space travel partners, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Boeing Space Exploration and Space X are participating in a project called the Commercial Crew Program. During this program the performance of a vehicle in free flight in space will be evaluated in a simulated environment. The next generation “launch” abort technology will also be tried and tested. Apart from participating in the project the leading companies will also test and review their space systems.
Virgin Galactic has been engaged in an ongoing effort to launch the first commercial spaceflight and 2013 saw them make significant strides forward. About 600 people including celebrities Ashton Kutcher and Justin Bieber, have already signed up with Virgin Galactic for a seat on a voyage to low earth orbit on board SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s own spacecraft. The current price tag for a flight on board SpaceShipTwo is $250,000. On January 10, 2014 SpaceShipTwo successfully carried out its first supersonic test flight. “2014 is our year to do it for real,” said Mike Moses, the company’s Vice President of Operations. Speaking after the flight, an elated David Mackay the chief pilot said “it was a dream come true” and “she flew like a champ.”
The preparedness of the big players in the arena of commercial space travel seems to indicate that commercial space flights will finally take off in 2014 and NASA is set to announce a few commercial crew transportation capability contracts by August of this year. This, NASA says, will enable commercial vehicles to carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Boeing Space Exploration has also completed a review of the design of their spacecraft named CST-100, which is their entry into NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program. After the review the propulsion system of the spacecraft has been given the go ahead for integration with the spacecraft which is now in the process of development.
In 2013, the Sierra Nevada Corporation performed the first free flight of their space plane called the Dream Chaser. Blue Origin also test fired its BE-3 engine in 2013 for its New Shepherd space shuttle. The engine performed according to the expectations of the design team. Space X, another US giant, is in the process of upgrading its Falcon 9 rocket which launched the first commercial satellite in September 2013.
With companies all over Europe, America and Russia vying with each other to put the first commercial vehicle in space, NASA’s announcement about a significant milestone in commercial space travel seems to be all set to become a reality in 2014.
By Grace Stephen