Aviation is going through a new era of exciting innovation that is taking customers beyond the limits of our planet with commercial space flights.
The new era of space flight, romanticised by the recent launch of Star Trek legendary actor William Shatner aboard the Blue Origin has further captivated the wider public’s interest in the potential of these paid-for space flights. Flying into the outer reaches of our solar system and into space has been a long-held fantasy.
Even with some angry fingers pointing at the billionaires who are leading the race to space, the culmination of years of technical advancement, pop culture (watch the current streaming series For All Mankind!), and the investment from three wealthy and aspirational business leaders is leading everyone to believe a journey beyond the earth’s limits is closer to commercial reality.
Six non-NASA flights have now taken place by mid-October 2021. The technology used could also impact travel within the Earth’s stratosphere and beyond, while the plans for supersonic airliners and the eVTOL hype are simultaneously transforming the business of commercial and charter flights.
SpaceX - Falcon 9 and Dragon
Elon Musk’s SpaceX won the race to launch the first civilians to space on its Falcon 9 rocket carrying Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old tech entrepreneur, Sian Proctor, a 51-year-old geoscientist, Chris Sembroski, a 42-year-old aerospace data engineer, and Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant, on 18 September 2021 - the flight was dubbed Inspiration4.
CNBC said “the so-called Inspiration4 mission is the first expedition into orbit without any professional astronauts on board. The historic flight represents the next stage in the evolution of human spaceflight, as access to the cosmos expands beyond just governments and their space agencies.”
Technology-wise, the Falcon 9 is “a reusable, two-stage rocket designed and manufactured by SpaceX for the reliable and safe transport of people and payloads into Earth orbit and beyond.” SpaceX said the Falcon 9 is the world’s first orbital-class reusable rocket and the reusability makes the program much more sustainable and affordable.
The Dragon spacecraft attached to the Falcon 9 is capable of carrying up to 7 passengers to and from Earth’s orbit, and it completed the world’s first all-civilian mission to orbit. It is “the only spacecraft currently flying that is capable of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth, and is the first private spacecraft to take humans to the space station.”
Virgin Atlantic - Unity22
Founded by billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, Virgin Atlantic announced on October 18 2021 that they will launch private-astronaut flights in the fourth quarter of 2022. The operation is run from Spaceport America which covers 27 square miles and is the centre of flight operations. It is the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, claims Virgin Atlantic.
Virgin Galactic's first fully crewed Spaceflight Unity22 took place earlier in 2021 with Branson on board. The sub-orbital spaceflight of the SpaceShipTwo-class VSS Unity launched on 11 July 2021. Branson said, “I really hope that there will be millions of kids all over the world who will be captivated and inspired about the possibility of them going to space one day.”
The crew consisted of pilots David Mackay and Michael Masucci as well as passengers Sirisha Bandla, Colin Bennett, Beth Moses, and Branson.
Virgin Atlantic uses a spaceship and mothership which reach just below 50,000 feet before the spaceship is released from the piloted mothership. Reaching speeds of over Mach 3 and taking the passengers to nearly 300,000 feet above Earth, those onboard get to enjoy cabin weightlessness. There are many vantage points provided by the ship’s 17 windows, while 16 cameras throughout the cabin capture the entire experience.
For re-entry, the ship’s wings raise up 60 degrees at which point the ship descends through the atmosphere, and the spaceship returns to the same runway from which it took off.
Blue Origin - New Shepard
Blue Origin is an American privately-funded aerospace manufacturer and is headquartered in Kent, Washington, most famous for its affiliation to the founder and former executive chairman of Amazon Jeff Bezos.
Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, has already flown four people to the edge of space in July 2021, (aboard the New Shepard) and again in October 2021 with the passengers including the actor William Shatner in a high-profile launch.
Blue Origin and Guinness World Records™ announced several records were achieved as part of Blue Origin’s successful first human flight to space and back on July 20, 2021. The flight included Jeff Bezos, Mark Bezos, aviation pioneer Wally Funk, and Blue Origin’s first customer, Oliver Daemen.
The space company is developing a variety of technologies, which include “rocket-powered vertical takeoff and vertical landing (VTVL) vehicles for access to suborbital and orbital space.”
The New Shepard is a “reusable suborbital rocket system designed to take astronauts and research payloads past the Kármán line – the internationally recognized boundary of space.” There is space for six astronauts in the capsule which is a fully autonomous vehicle. Flights with Blue Origin are currently planned to be 11-minutes long.
Prince William is the latest high-profile personality to add his voice to the concerns over the advent of space flights and space tourism, saying “We need some of the world’s greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live.”
How much does a civilian space flight cost?
For a trip on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo seats typically cost $250,000 to $500,000.
Virgin Galactic has said it was charging at least $450,000 a seat for private-astronaut flights.
A seat on Blue Origin's New Shepard craft was auctioned off at $28 million (Oliver Daemen, the Dutch teenager aboard Blue Origin’s first crewed flight father won the bid) while SpaceX has not revealed the costs but a seat on SpaceX's Crew Dragon is expected to costs roughly $55 million.
And space movies? Well, a Russian actress, Julia Peresild, and her director-cameraman completed a 12-day movie shoot aboard the International Space Station in October 2021.
Technological Advancements from commercial space flights
In the space race, the global satellite-internet network expansions are also rapid.
A sub-company of SpaceX is Starlink which has been responsible for launching the most satellites into orbit (1,350 of them!) and there are plans to launch as many as 42,000 by 2027. Space clutter is already a hot topic and as these commercial space ventures increase their flights and frequency - there is the increased risk of a space catastrophe.
Project Kuiper, is a subsidiary of Amazon, which also aims to develop a global space-based internet service and launch 3,236 satellites to 630 kilometres in orbit, very close to Starlink's satellites at 550 kilometres reported Business Insider. Project Kuiper has regulatory approval to launch its satellite fleet into space by July 2029.
There are several other multi-million dollar companies competing in the same space such as:
- ViaSat - planning on putting 288 satellites into low-Earth orbit (LEO) by 2026.
- Hughes Net - aiming to launch Jupiter 3 in the second half of 2022 - this will be the largest commercial satellite ever launched.
- Eutelsat is a European satellite operator that has 39 GEO satellites positioned at 36,000 kilometres away in orbit & plans to launch Konnect VHTS, “to provide powerful connectivity seamlessly to the end-user at a price comparable to those of terrestrial operators."
These services aim to provide ultra-fast connectivity at affordable rates which can be used globally, and possibly on many private aircraft to provide seamless remote working experiences for those who need to be connected 24/7.
In total, 16,000 satellites are expected to be launched from 2021 to 2025, but space sustainability and safe spaceflight operations are at risk.
With the rapid transition to commercial space flights and exploration, we can let our minds wander even farther to imaginative weekends away on earth’s moon, on a dusty-red Mars or even planets farther away, and new destination beyond our solar systems!