The Scientist as Space Tourist

Private rockets like SpaceShipTwo will offer space-based science on the cheap

3 min read

Powered flight tests are slated later this year for SpaceShipTwo, a craft built to carry humans on brief excursions more than 100 kilometers into space. And although publicity indicates that these travelers will be rich thrill-seeking "space tourists," some of them are, in fact, going to be scientists, engineers, and probably even graduate students on funded research programs, ­according to S. Alan Stern, a scientist now spearheading the development of this new concept.

SpaceShipTwo is the descendant of SpaceShipOne, the X-Prize–winning craft designed by Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites. Now funded by Virgin Galactic, the space company owned by British aviation mogul Sir Richard Branson, the new vehicle was geared to wealthy adventurers ­willing to pay US $200 000 for a ride into space.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.


For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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