Nearly every North American thinks of NASA when considering manned or unmanned spaceflight. After all, NASA launched the first American astronaut into orbit, the first pair of American astronauts on longer earth orbit missions, and landed men on the Moon. Many still consider the 1960’s and early 1970’s as the golden age of spaceflight. More recently, NASA shuttles carried astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). Without the shuttle program, NASA has had to consider new paths into space.
Many engineers gained inspiration from NASA’s accomplishments and many young students aspired to explore space as astronauts. Unfortunately, NASA has always experienced budgetary problems and has always existed at the mercy of legislators. Programs have come and gone after gaining and then losing both public and legislative support. After the closing of the shuttle program, the future of manned space flight became doubtful.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, NASA continues to emphasize the unmanned exploration of space. Several factors, such as cost and safety, favor the use of robotic spacecraft to explore the near and far reaches of space. However, the appeal of sending men and women into space remains.
Forging the new path into space, private space companies have raced to fill the void left by the closing of the shuttle program. In some instances, the private sector works closely with NASA during the construction of prototype spacecraft. The private space companies enjoy not only the financial backing of successful entrepreneurs but also employ former NASA administrators and employees. As an example, Virgin Galactic operates under the guidance and inspiration of entrepreneur Richard Branson and features many former NASA administrators within its leadership ranks.
Virgin Galactic offers an innovate path to space through its carrier aircraft and composite spacecraft. Once the corporation has a successful test flight, they plan to sell commercial sub-orbital flights into space. Since 2005, individuals have continued to sign on for the opportunity. Tourists and researchers are charged the sum of $250,000 for a ride into space.
A Virgin Galactic mission begins with the carrier aircraft named VMS Eve for Richard Branson’s mother. First flown in 2008, the carrier aircraft still owns the title of largest composite aircraft to fly. VMS Eve can carry a 35,000 pound payload to 50,000 feet with a range of 2,000 miles. Two pilots and six passengers ride within SpaceShip Two, a 60 foot long composite spacecraft that has a 7.5 foot cabin circumference. Missions will take off from Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America in New Mexico. Billed as the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, the facility features a two-mile long runway.
Virgin Galactic has also introduced LauncherOne, a launch vehicle designed for placing satellites into space. The launch vehicle has the capability to carry small satellites into space and matches the operation of the launcher to the needs of the satellite mission. The use of a smaller launch vehicle provides a better opportunity for satellite operators to boost their payloads into orbit. Since LauncherOne utilizes VMS Eve as a launch platform, Virgin Galactic can keep costs lower and provide greater flexibility for each launch. These factors allow the Corporation to offers a competitive edge to the satellite operators. Virgin Galactic is on the leading edge of NASA’s new path into space, and manned spaceflight may become reality on the strength of private enterprise.
By John A. Ross