Washington | The two most advanced private companies in the space tourism market say they are only a few months away from their first flights into space with customers on board, although each remains cautious and refrains from advancing a specific date .
Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, and Blue Origin, by the more discreet billionaire Jeff Bezos, boss of Amazon, are racing to be the first to finish the tests. Both companies have radically different technologies.
Few minutes of weightlessness
For both, the passengers will not go into orbit around the Earth: their experience in weightlessness will only last a few minutes, unlike the few space tourists who paid tens of millions of dollars to travel aboard a Soyuz and of the International Space Station (ISS) in the 2000s.
For a ticket much cheaper (250,000 dollars at Virgin, an amount unknown at Blue Origin), these new tourists will be propelled to several tens of kilometers, before falling back to Earth. By comparison, the ISS is in orbit at 400 km.
The goal is to approach or exceed the imaginary line marking the beginning of space, the Karman line, 100 km, or the line preferred by the US military, 50 miles (80 km).
At this altitude, the sky becomes darker, and the curvature of the Earth appears clearly.
At Virgin Galactic, six passengers and two pilots will set up aboard the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity , which looks like a private jet. The VSS Unity will be attached under a carrier plane, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo . Once dropped at an altitude of 15,000 meters, the ship will light its rocket towards the sky.
There passengers will float in weightlessness for several minutes.
The descent will be slowed by a tail system: the wings of the tail of the vessel will pivot and the vessel will arch before returning to normal. Then the aircraft will land on an airstrip at the Virgin Spaceport in the New Mexico Desert.
In a May 29 test in the Mojave desert, the ship reached an altitude of 35 km.
In October 2014, Virgin’s ship crashed into flight due to a pilot error, killing one of the two pilots. The tests resumed with a new device.
Virgin has reached an agreement to open a second spaceport in Italy, at Taranto-Grottaglie airport.
Richard Branson said in May, on BBC Radio 4, he hoped to be one of the first passengers in the next 12 months. About 650 customers are on the waiting list, says Virgin to AFP.
Blue Origin has developed a system that resembles traditional rockets: the New Shepard .
Six passengers will sit in the seats of a capsule, a cabin fixed at the top of a vertical rocket 18 meters high. After the launch, which will propel the capsule to near Mach 3, it will detach and continue its trajectory a few kilometers to the sky. In a test on April 29, the capsule reached 107 km.
During this time, the rocket will come down again … and will land, slowly, vertically.
After several minutes of weightlessness, during which passengers can get up and look out through large portholes, the capsule will fall back to Earth, slowed by three large parachutes and retrofuses.
From take-off to landing, the flight of the last test lasted 10 minutes.
So far only manikin testing has been done on the Blue Origin site in Texas.
But a leader, Rob Meyerson, said in June that the first inhabited tests would take place soon. Another official, Yu Matsutomi, said Wednesday at a conference that they would be held at the end of this year, according to Space News.
SpaceX and Boeing are developing capsules to transport NASA astronauts, probably from 2020 as a result of delays. Considerable investments that these companies will probably seek to amortize by offering trips to individuals.
“If you want to go into space, you’ll soon have four times more options than you’ve ever had,” says AFP Phil Larson, deputy dean of the School of Engineering of the United States. University of Colorado at Boulder.
In the longer term, the Russian company building the Soyuz is studying the possibility of bringing tourists back to the ISS. And an American start-up, Orion Span, has announced this year to place a space station in orbit in a few years, but this project is still very far from the day.