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Virgin Galactic aims for orbit

Posted: December 16, 2010

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DENVER -- Already cornering the market for brief up-and-down joyrides for space tourists, Virgin Galactic announced Thursday it has an agreement to sell seats on two lifting body spaceships proposed under NASA's commercial crew development initiative.

Artist's concept of the Orbital Sciences space plane proposal for NASA's commercial crew transportation program. Credit: Orbital Sciences
Both spacecraft are being designed to rotate government astronauts to and from the International Space Station, but they could serve other markets in low Earth orbit.

Virgin Galactic, founded by wealthy businessman Richard Branson, is supporting spacecraft proposals by Orbital Sciences Corp. and Sierra Nevada Corp., the company said Thursday in a press release.

Both companies are vying for NASA funding under the second round of the Commercial Crew Development program, or CCDev 2.

Orbital and Sierra Nevada are designing separate lifting body space planes designed to take off on top of an Atlas 5 rocket, conduct a mission in orbit, then return to Earth for a runway landing like the space shuttle.

Virgin Galactic is already testing its SpaceShipTwo craft, which is designed to carry a handful of tourists to the edge of space more than 60 miles above Earth. The brief flights, which will expose fliers to weightlessness for 5 minutes, will be staged from the brand new Spaceport America facility in southern New Mexico.

Orbital flights aboard Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser or Orbital's space plane would last much longer. Virgin Galactic did not release the expected duration of possible tourist flights in Earth orbit, but the missions could feasibly last days, weeks, or months.

"We are now very close to making the dream of suborbital space a reality for thousands of people at a cost and level of safety unimaginable even in the recent past," Branson said. "We know that many of those same people, including myself, would also love to take an orbital space trip in the future, so we are putting our weight behind new technologies that could deliver that safely whilst driving down the enormous current costs of manned orbital flight by millions of dollars."

Virgin Galactic says it has deposits of more than $54 million from more than 400 people signed up to take suborbital rides on SpaceShipTwo. Potential clients not only include tourists, but also private and institutional research groups.

"Today's announcement is an important step along the way to achieving our ultimate and long term goal of leading an industry which opens up the huge potential of space to everyone, whether it be for the experience itself, for science research, for fast and efficient transportation around the globe or for delivering payloads to space safely, cleanly and cheaply," Branson said.

The CCDev 2 competition is expected to end in the spring of 2011 with awards to multiple spacecraft teams to mature key technologies and reach design milestones over the next year. NASA has announced it expects to invest about $200 million spread among multiple teams next year.

CCDev 2 presents an opportunity for Virgin Galactic to "start to map a path towards a commercial orbital service for fare-paying passengers by encouraging reusable technologies and designs which can offer important advantages to safety, cost and passenger experience," the company said in the press release.

Artist's concept of the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser space plane proposal for NASA's commercial crew transportation program. Credit: Sierra Nevada
The first round of the CCDev program awarded $50 million to five companies, including Boeing Co. for its CST-100 capsule proposal.

Boeing received $18 million in February 2010 for the design of the seven-person CST-100 spacecraft. Boeing says the CST-100 could be ready for operational flights by 2015.

Space Adventures and Boeing announced a teaming arrangement in September in which the companies would pursue the orbital tourist market for CST-100 missions. Space Adventures managed tourist participation in eight Soyuz missions to the space station between 2001 and 2009, but there are few flight opportunities for paying passengers in the coming years because the Russian craft's seats will be filled with fliers from the station's partner nations.

The U.S. commercial space market represents what Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures believe to be a suitable long-term solution for tourists and other clients.

Boeing is also requesting additional funding under CCDev 2, as is SpaceX, which did not submit a full development bid in the last proposal season.

SpaceX is proposing to outfit the Dragon capsule for human occupants, a task the company says it can complete in about three years from the start of a contract.

Officials say the Dragon will contain as many as seven passengers in its crew configuration.

The Dragon is the only potential commercial crew vehicle with any unmanned flight heritage. SpaceX launched the cargo version of the Dragon Dec. 8 on a Falcon 9 rocket for a successful two-orbit test flight.

But the other three known CCDev competitors are leaning on a wealth of design heritage and corporate experience.

Boeing's CST-100 is built upon the company's involvement in the human space program over the last five decades. The capsule, which is also designed to be reusable, will run on flight-proven, low-cost technologies and shares aerodynamic flight characteristics with the Apollo command module.

"We look forward to continuing our joint efforts with NASA to ensure CCDev's success," said Brewster Shaw, vice president and general manager of Boeing's space exploration division. "Enabling commercial-crew access to low Earth orbit allows NASA to focus on deep space exploration and thereby ensure a continued leadership role for the U.S. in human spaceflight for generations to come."

The CST-100 is designed to fit on a variety of rockets, including the Atlas 5, Delta 4 and Falcon 9.

Artist's concept of the Boeing CST-100 capsule proposal for NASA's commercial crew transportation program. Credit: Boeing
The Orbital Sciences proposal is a four-seat blended lifting body design based on work the company did for NASA's Orbital Space Plane program between 2000 and 2003.

Orbital did not disclose when the space plane could be ready for service, but it unveiled an experienced team of suppliers that will work on segments of the program.

Thales Alenia Space of Italy will be responsible for the vehicle's pressurized crew compartment. Thales-built modules comprise a significant percentage of the International Space Station's habitable volume. The firm is also manufacturing pressurized compartments for Orbital's Cygnus cargo freighter, a commercial resupply vessel that will share logistics duties with SpaceX's Dragon beginning in 2011 and 2012.

Northrop Grumman Corp. is the lead airframe designer, Honeywell and Draper Laboratory will share avionics duties and United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5 rocket is the prime launch vehicle.

"We have submitted to NASA a well-considered commercial solution for astronaut transportation to and from the ISS that is safe, affordable and timely," said Frank Culbertson, Orbital's senior vice president for human spaceflight systems. "Our team is looking forward to sharing our ideas with NASA in greater detail and discussing how they can best be applied to helping the United States continue to access the ISS in the safest and most cost-effective manner possible, as well as supporting commercial ventures that are seeking access to space."

The Dream Chaser proposal from Sierra Nevada is based on NASA's HL-20 lifting body personnel launch system concept. Also launching on an Atlas 5 rocket, the Dream Chaser would deliver a crew of seven to low Earth orbit and be ready for operations by 2014, according to Sierra Nevada.

Sierra Nevada received $20 million in February 2010, the largest award in the first round of CCDev.

In Thursday's press release, Virgin Galactic said it will investigate making its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft available to Orbital and Sierra Nevada for development tests.

A similar mothership airplane was used for drop and landing tests of the U.S. Air Force X-37B program.

"We are thrilled to have Virgin Galactic as part of our effort to make commercial orbital transportation a reality," said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of Sierra Nevada's space systems unit. "The knowledge gained by Virgin in the development and promotion of the history making SpaceShipTwo suborbital system will add considerably to our program."

Sierra Nevada is the supplier of the main rocket engine on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo.

"Virgin Galactic is clearly breaking new ground in the commercial space market, and we are now very excited to have them on our team," Culbertson said. "This partnership for marketing and supporting our innovative and affordable design carries a great deal of promise for achieving the kind of growth in commercial spaceflight that will help to make this a sustainable market in the future."