After a piggy-back lift into the skies atop an airplane, the space plane suddenly breaks away and its hydrogen-powered rockets send it hurtling up towards the heavens. Higher and higher the space vehicle goes, climbing to more than a hundred kilometres above the earth. A woman’s soothing voice provides a running commentary to the passengers. Now the stars are visible, as the plane, with its panoramic windows, flies in a parabolic trajectory. And soon it is time to return to earth. Such is the vision projected by V-Plane, a Hamburg company that designs small aircraft. The space ride would cost 150,000 euros (185,000 dollars) per person. The idea has only been partially developed, and therefore it is currently available only virtually, as a video film.
”It’s simple in principle,” says Joachim Lau, Chief Executive of V-Plane. Next to him is a model of the ‘suborbital aircraft’, which would carry eight passengers. It’s initial ascent, ‘strapped’ onto a regular plane, would take it to an altitude of 12 kilometres, before its rockets fire. For five minutes, at the top of the trajectory, the passengers would experience weightlessness. Booster, an international consortium based in Belgium, commissioned the Hamburg company six years ago to help it conceive the project. More than 30 companies have taken part till now, but so far nothing has been built.
”We have flown a simulated mission,” Lau says. “Now the market for it has to open up.” Two years ago, Booster founder James Murray predicted that the first tourist space flights would be possible by 2016. But this target has proved too ambitious. Now the forecast is for the end of the decade, at the earliest. Why this ‘long‘ delay? ‘Experts’ quickly point to the US company Virgin Galactic, owned by multi-billionaire Richard Branson, who likewise wants to provide suborbital flights for paying customers. His first mission was supposed to take place in 2009, but has faced repeated postponements. Investors are holding back until a successful flight can be demonstrated, Murray says. The project would pave the way for commercial space travel.
So far, 600 people have booked tickets at 250,000 dollars each. Ulrich Walter, a former astronaut and now professor of Space Technology at the Technical University of Munich, says that the propulsion system is the chief problem. In Europe there are also legal and insurance issues, Walter notes.
The former astronaut does not believe that a broader market will be created if Virgin Galactic succeeds in carrying out the first mission. “If that happens, they will just clean up the market - quick as a flash,” he says. It is also questionable whether the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) will permit the Booster project. ”We can’t promise anything,” says Jean-Brunno Marciacq, the man in charge at EASA for drafting the regulations for this type of air travel. A licence from the Agency is absolutely essential, he notes. ”It would also help the developers win over the confidence of investors and potential passengers.” He adds that EASA would be open to working out possibilities. Europe needs a security concept for this new type of aircraft, something similar to the US Federal Aviation Administration’s Licensing System, which was set up in 2004. ”To develop this in Europe is more complicated and can take longer, because both the European Commission and European Parliament must approve it,” he says.
In contrast to today’s conventional passenger air travel, passengers aboard suborbital flights must first undergo training and obtain a clean bill of health. Marciacq says that space tourism, when it happens, would be merely the tip of the iceberg, in that there is also heightened interest of the scientific community in such flights. Scientists could create more and cheaper opportunities for carrying out experiments in a state of weightlessness. ”Molecules and crystals form in space better than on earth. New medicines and metals could be manufactured in this manner,” he adds. In the distant future it would even perhaps be possible to fly from, say, Hamburg to New York in one and a half hours – on suborbital spacecraft, Murray says. ”This would come at the end of the chain of development.” Five companies around the world are now working on comparable projects. Heaven knows who will launch the first suborbital mission…and when.