The 20th of February, 2012, will be the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. orbital manned spaceflight. To mark the occasion, retired pilot Craig Russell had an over-the-top idea: Reenact astronaut John Glenn's mission, but do it with private funding and off-the-shelf technologies.
Ultimately, a lack of funding killed Russell's dream, but don't lose heart. Truth is, if you've got a more practical reason for putting a person in space, there's never been a better time to try. Over the last decade, a broad advance in the commercial availability of aerospace technologies has allowed small private entities to attempt feats that once had been the monopoly of major governments.
In 2012 privately funded human spaceflight will advance from promises and one-off stunts to serious flight-testing of spaceships. Governments will be the biggest customers, with unmanned systems possibly docking with the International Space Station (ISS) this year and perhaps eventually taking the place of the retired U.S. space shuttles. Meanwhile, spacecraft designed to give well-heeled tourists a thrill will be firing up their rockets, letting their passengers enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness, and gliding in for landings.
Indeed, this could be the year that spaceflight moves beyond the 1960s inspirational phrase "man in space" toward a more inclusive one: "Any man or woman in space."
In spaceflight, as in many other fields, there's an advantage to being first. Virgin Galactic has that advantage. Its SpaceShipTwo is the roomier follow-up to the craft that won the Ansari X-Prize in 2004 for crossing the legal boundary of space (100 kilometers). The British company has already sold nearly 500 tickets at US $200 000 apiece, and it opened a spaceport this past October in New Mexico.
In 2012, "our hope, our plan, is to do powered flight tests, and if things go well, we have a shot of getting into space," says CEO George T. Whitesides. Using the large WhiteKnightTwo aircraft as a carrier, the rocket plane has already begun unpowered drop tests from its development base in Mojave, Calif. And it recently concluded ground-based engine burns that were nearly long enough to put a vehicle into space. Full-duration burns will last between 60 and 70 seconds during an ascent that involves a little less than 4 g's of acceleration.
Actual test flights will be made in small steps, Whitesides says. Turning the engine on and off will be a first step, followed by a 10-second burn, a 20-second burn, and so forth. When asked how many test flights there would be before the first tourists fly, he laughed, saying, "As many as you need."
The other tourist spaceship that is expected to get airborne in 2012 is the Lynx rocket plane from Xcor Aerospace, in Mojave. Its concept is less grandiose than SpaceShipTwo's, with a single passenger sitting in a cockpit next to a single pilot and with initial flights to altitudes of just over 60 kilometers. Company spokesman Mike Massee says the rocket plane's propulsion system was designed for speedy testing and will eventually allow for two flights per day using a single ground crew.