Space Thrill Rides: Shuttle or Gemini?
That faint humming sound you hear is the media-industrial complex gearing up for the first commercial space tourism flights, which Virgin Galactic seems likely to pull off next year, if not sooner. On NBC news Friday, I saw an advance story on Virgin Galactic with an interview with Richard Branson. It’s pre-promo; NBC has signed a deal to broadcast the first flight live on the Today show. It promises to be quite the spectacle.
Right behind Virgin is another company, XCOR, which also intends to compete in the space tourism business, but its longer term goal is a reusable orbital vehicle. The two companies are offering very different rides indeed. XCOR, you might remember, is the company that developed the engines for the Rocket Racing League, one of those terrific, holy-cow-cool ideas that just never seemed to jell, although they did some spectacular demo flights at AirVenture.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say Virgin Galactic is offering the Space Shuttle to XCOR’s Gemini. Virgin’s space craft is a Burt Rutan-conceived eight-person design—six passengers and two pilots—that’s air launched from 50,000 feet from a purpose-built aircraft. XCOR has the Lynx, a two-person spacecraft that’s not much larger than a Cirrus SR22. It’s uncompromisingly optimized for altitude, not payload, and it’s ground launched from a runway, not an aircraft in flight. Virgin’s Space Ship Two has a hybrid solid-fuel/oxidizer engine while the Lynx uses four liquid fuel rockets.
Quite a difference in ticket prices, too. Virgin Galactic, which claims to have 600 passengers signed up, is charging $250,000 compared to $95,000 for the XCOR ride, at least as of now. The Lynx hasn’t flown yet, while Virgin Galactic’s Space Ship Two is well into testing.
Reading about these two approaches to space rides—Michael Belfiore wrote an insightful article on Lynx in the November Air&Space magazine—got me to thinking which one I’d pick if I had that kind of money to toss away on an afternoon joyride. A quarter of a million bucks is a lot of money, but you and I both know people who can afford it. Question is, would they decide to?
Money aside, the Virgin ride sounds more bus like, promising the group dynamic of training together for a couple of days, a longer overall flight because of the air launch phase and, best of all, the opportunity to unstrap and float around the cabin for a bit in zero G. That sounds like fun, but you could do it for a lot less through Zero G Corporation’s parabolic flights. Of course, the view’s not nearly as spectacular.
In the Lynx, it’s just you and the pilot. No air launch claw for altitude and maybe not the same anticipation of what’s about to happen, either. The thing is towed out to the runway, cleared for takeoff and it’s one eyeball-squashing, ears-pinned-back grand swoop from rotation to the top of the arc at 330,000 feet. You get the zero G, but you have to stay strapped in the seat. Like Virgin’s Space Ship, Lynx returns to the departure runway as a glider.
So which would it be? Tough call. Since I’m basically an anti-social grump, I have no overwhelming desire to “share” this experience with five other people. I’d just as soon sit next to Rick Searfoss and beg for some Lynx stick time. I’d exchange floating off the seat in zero G for the raw sensation of pointing straight up and reaching Mach 1 and 2.5 Gs in about a minute, all from the front seat. Not bad. You could do two of those flights and have change left over for a small yacht.
Either way, it’ll be great to have a choice in space thrill rides, even if I never get to make one. How about you? Shuttle or Gemini?