Following NASAs LeadBy Larry Dignan | Posted 2005-08-31 Email Print
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The UPS Brown Voyager? It could happen if private companies take over low-earth space travel and free up NASA to shoot for the stars.
Meyers hopes to use NASA's suppliers to build what would be a second-generation space shuttle to ferry space-station components, cargo and people into space. The company's shuttle—pending $5 billion to $7 billion in funding—would be built on NASA's work on the Delta Clipper, an experimental vehicle shelved in July 1997, and the X-33, which was scrapped in March 2001.
"The problem with the shuttle was that it was a 30-year prototype," Meyers says. "There were never second and third generations that improved on the first shuttle."
Clint Wallington, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says it remains to be seen whether there's a payoff from transferring NASA's knowledge of astronaut training, supplier contracts and operating launch facilities.
"You can transfer it all [to the private sector], but at what cost?" Wallington says. "You can give away the launch facilities and everything, and it could still take $250 million to do a launch. If you get seven passengers paying $20 million each, you're still [more than] $100 million short."
Challenge:Making a business case
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According to Beichman, engineering a commercial manned space flight is nothing compared to making a profit. "It's not obvious where the money is going to be made," he says.
Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, British entrepreneur Richard Branson's effort to launch space tourism, says business cases will emerge. In July, Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, a Mojave, Calif.-based aerospace design company, announced a joint venture to build a spaceship that could take two pilots and seven passengers into a sub-orbital flight (minimum of 62 miles above Earth). The service, initially targeted for 2008, will cost $200,000 a person for a nearly three-hour trip after three days of training.
Space travel is expensive, but NASA has figured out some ways to get customized systems at a lower cost. See if the approach makes sense for you in: Custom Software on the Cheap"In five to six years, we hope to get that down to $100,000," Whitehorn says.
Whitehorn envisions a trip where passengers can see Earth at the edge of space, float around the cabin and see some stars along the way.
Virgin's partner, Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan, built SpaceShipOne, which in October 2004 reached a height of 69.6 miles to collect the $10 million Ansari X Prize, an award for the first spacecraft to reach 328,000 feet twice within 14 days.
Next up: Develop SpaceShipTwo, which will carry people and payload for Virgin Galactic, and then build SpaceShipThree, which will be an orbiting craft, according to Whitehorn.