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Space Thrill Rides: Shuttle or Gemini?

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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. Itís 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.

Itís not much of an exaggeration to say Virgin Galactic is offering the Space Shuttle to XCORís Gemini.†Virginís space craft is a Burt Rutan-conceived eight-person designósix passengers and two pilotsóthatís air launched from 50,000 feet from a purpose-built aircraft. XCOR has the Lynx, a two-person spacecraft thatís not much larger than a Cirrus SR22. Itís uncompromisingly optimized for altitude, not payload, and itís ground launched from a runway, not an aircraft in flight. Virginís 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 hasnít flown yet, while Virgin Galacticís Space Ship Two is well into testing.

Reading about these two approaches to space ridesóMichael Belfiore wrote an†insightful article†on Lynx in the November†Air&Space†magazineógot me to thinking which one Iíd 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 Corporationís†parabolic flights. Of course, the viewís not nearly as spectacular.

In the Lynx, itís just you and the pilot. No air launch claw for altitude and maybe not the same anticipation of whatís about to happen, either. The thing is towed out to the runway, cleared for takeoff and itís 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 Virginís Space Ship, Lynx returns to the departure runway as a glider.

So which would it be? Tough call. Since Iím basically an anti-social grump, I have no overwhelming desire to ďshareĒ this experience with five other people. Iíd just as soon sit next to Rick Searfoss and beg for some Lynx stick time. Iíd 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, itíll be great to have a choice in space thrill rides, even if I never get to make one. How about you? Shuttle or Gemini?

Join the conversation. †Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (13)

Paul, you're just too much of a prolific writer for me. Hell, I'm still back on the airline merger - I have an opinion about anything but changing gears in midair is tough. Lets just walk down the hill...

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 13, 2013 10:54 PM    Report this comment

Agree with Rafael's comment; who but Paul Bertorelli could come up with such illustrative prose as "eyeball-squashing (acceleration)" !! Got quite a chuckle out of that one! Good job PB.

(by the way I would like the XCOR ride better because of the pure pilot-techno appeal)

Posted by: A Richie | November 14, 2013 9:35 AM    Report this comment

Depends which one blows up least....

Posted by: John Patson | November 14, 2013 10:12 AM    Report this comment

Paul, seems to me that Avweb should ante up for you to ride both so you can do a comparison for us.

Posted by: Richard Montague | November 14, 2013 2:52 PM    Report this comment

From what I heard, Paul speed- blogs directly from outer space. According to word on the street he's got some 57 fingers for typing, spread out over 4 arms and three heads for faster thinking. After pretty much taking AvWeb out of business with his politically incorrect way of journalism the owner of AvWeb, Mr. Av Web himself, made a executive decision and sent Paul to outer space. I do hold exclusive interview rights with Mr. Bertorelli, in case he decides to share the truth and nothing but the truth. :o)

Posted by: Jason Baker | November 14, 2013 3:06 PM    Report this comment

I'd be a fool for the view - bouncing into other people or off walls I get enough of in daily life...

One could probably snatch a weightless M&M candy or glob of water at least in the Lynx, but to have that cockpit view, instead of side port view would be just awesome, for the entire trip no less. Yet, sadly for now at least, it will remain just a Gemini Dream...

Posted by: Dave Miller | November 14, 2013 3:09 PM    Report this comment

OK, I'll take the "eyeball-squashing, ears-pinned-back grand swoop from rotation to the top of the arc". It takes me back to the early 70s while listening to Jefferson Starship's Blows Against the Empire.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 14, 2013 3:34 PM    Report this comment

I'm not sure which I'd take, but I had the pleasure of seeing both the prototypes fly. Some years ago, I came across a mention - on AvWeb? - of XCOR planning a couple of test flights of their re-startable rocket motor. It should have been a three hour drive, but I didn't account for time getting lost - and when I got there, the test area was bare. Hopeful anyway, I called the XCOR office.

I talked to a very pleasant guy who told me that the first flight had gone well, but the'd run out of LOX and were on hold for an hour or two while someone took the ewer to be refilled. He also said that he could use a ride from the admin office out to their hanger, and that if I didn't mind doing so, I'd get a quick tour.

I didn't quite burn rubber getting over there, but it was close.

The test bird was a modified Long-EZ, called the EZ Rocket (tinyurl.com/qxoapjs). Power was from a pair of 400# thrust alcohol burning rockets, each about the size of a beer can (but bulked up by heat/blast shields). Dick Rutan was test pilot and design consultant. I was allowed to get as close to the plane as I liked - close enough to sniff the oxygen still venting from the tank, close enough to stick my head inside the cabin. One small panel held the custom rocket controls - including a pair of simple toggle switches, simply labeled: "Quiet/Loud"). Off to the side was a custom trailer nearing completion- they explained how the fuselage would ride at a 30 degree roll angle in order to keep the trailer width legal. They couldn't have been any nicer.

The second flight went as well as the first.

It was some years later that I returned to Mojave, this time for the first attempt at putting Spaceship One in space. This was not the first of the X-prize flights - they would follow about a month later. This event was much lower key, but still with a respectable crowd turnout. I lucked out; found a place in front of the temporary fencing set up along a taxiway.

The takeoff was uneventful and we all sat back while the White Knight all but climbed out of sight. Eventually there was a an announcement of the rocket's release, followed shortly by a plume of smoke. The flight path went almost immediately across the sun, vanishing for an eternity before bursting out, unscathed, from the other side.

Have you ever heard the sound of a thousand people holding their collective breaths? Or the roar of relief when it was clear that all had gone well?

Following the flight, SS1 was towed up and down the taxiways behind a pickup, Burt Rutan sitting on the tailgate. Just as he passed my position, he signaled for a stop and ran up to the crowd, accepting and proudly displaying a "scoreboard" sign which had been held by an onlooker: SpaceShip 1 NASA 0

Posted by: Rush Strong | November 14, 2013 5:57 PM    Report this comment

6 lightly trained regular joes are going to be allowed to unstrap themselves in zero G and then be expected to buckle themselves back up (also in zero G of course) all in a matter of a few minutes? I hope there's live video footage of the cabin, it should be rather funny to watch. I wouldn't bet money on everyone actually getting back into their seats!

Posted by: Bradford E. Willmore | November 14, 2013 10:36 PM    Report this comment

I'll wait for a ride to the Bigelow Aerospace inflatable space station. Unfortunately, it is about two orders of magnitude more expensive than the Virgin Galactic flight, but since we are dreaming, why not. I don't care who gets me there, but I do like the SpaceShip concept.

Posted by: Seth Chazanoff | November 15, 2013 8:23 AM    Report this comment

Rush, thank you for the memories. Wish I'd been there.

Posted by: Darryl Philips | November 15, 2013 5:45 PM    Report this comment

Paul, you forgot the first step is signing the waiver of liability before boarding.

Posted by: Richard Mutzman | November 16, 2013 8:35 AM    Report this comment

Some great comments as usual.

I'd be more inclined to go for the Major Tom experience for similar reasons to Bertorelli. People are smelly, vexatious contraptions well before they start expelling substances from various orifices.

I'm glad these projects are happening but for now I'm going to hold out for the real deal. If I was a bit older, I'd seriously be considering this question. Seriously. For now, I'm hanging out for proper orbital flight. That will presumably be much more Shuttle than Gemini.

Maybe it's something best experienced in silence but I'd be taking this number just in case: "Ciato & Ciato's - Also Sprach Zarathustra - 1976" - it's on youtube under that name and it's for gettin down while you're goin up :-)

Posted by: john hogan | November 16, 2013 7:47 PM    Report this comment

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