I wrote about exoplanets a couple of weeks ago. This is the other thing that I find really amazing.
When I first became interested in space and astronomy, twenty plus years ago, humans had already got into space, built space stations, performed space walks, spent months in space on a single flight, built a re-usable space vehicle, and even gone to the moon. While space exploration in general has come on in leaps and bounds (our telescopes and our probes are much better now than they used to be), nothing interesting had happened in the area of crewed space exploration for decades – the superpowers went into space in the sixties, and gave up on new and interesting things in the seventies.
In the mean time, hobbyists launched test rockets from their back gardens and aerospace companies experimented with ramjets and scramjets, but none of this was going to take us back to the moon. When I first heard about the X Prize, I thought it wouldn’t be won for ages. Which of these groups had the resources to create a re-usable space plane?
To win the X Prize, a team that accepted no government funding had to fly the same ship to a height of 100 km twice in a two-week period, carrying one pilot and the weight of two more passengers. That’s not orbital flight, but it’s still impressive. Certainly I’d never heard of any private group getting anywhere near as high.
After a few years, X Prize competitors started doing tests, most of which were not impressive. id Software co-founder John Carmack’s team, Armadillo Aerospace, had a test vehicle blow up, and they weren’t the only one. Then Scaled Composites (bizarre name) said they would win the prize with SpaceShip One, and in October 2004 they did. I knew they’d been in the race, but I had no idea how well they were doing; having Paul Allen bankroll the project must have helped.
Since their victory, work has begun on a larger follow-up ship, SpaceShip Two. Five of these will be bought by the ambitiously titled Virgin Galactic, and should enter commerical service in 2008. A spaceport is being built. Virgin’s commerical pilots are being trained to pilot rocket ships. The whole thing has an air of unreality to it. The best is yet to come, though: if SpaceShip Two is successful, SpaceShip Three will be orbit-capable, and Virgin Galactic are said to have plans to create an orbital hotel.
Of course, all of this beyond SpaceShip One is talk, but I’m buying it right now anyway. Many of the X Prize competition teams have continued their development programmes – there could be a plethora of options for private orbital spaceflight within twenty years.
Things are stirring again in even in the long-moribund area of government-backed space travel. China launched its first taikonaut in 2003, and has long range plans to get to the Moon by around 2020. Seemingly in response, NASA has been directed to put people on the Moon and Mars in the same timeframe. Projects such as these are likely to run well over time and budget, but if the political will is there, they can be made to work.
Between these private and public developments, I finally think it’s likely that many of us will get into space, even if only for a few minutes or days. One of the most exciting fields of human activity has come back to centre stage in just a few years.