Will commercial space travel blast off in 2014?
The longed-for dawn of private manned space travel appears near at hand. Virgin Galactic’s suborbital SpaceShipTwo, for example, aced its?third supersonic test flight?on Friday (Jan. 10), and company officials say they remain on track to begin commercial service later this year.
But as Niels Bohr, Nobel laureate in physics, once said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”
SPACE.com surveyed a number of?commercial space travel?experts, asking them what developments we should expect in the field this year ? including whether or not large numbers of paying customers will indeed make it to the final frontier in 2014.
The suborbital sector
Virgin Galactic’s efforts to create the world’s first commercial spaceline have gained a lot of steam lately. The company has already signed up more than 600 people who aim to fly to suborbital space aboard?SpaceShipTwo, at a current price of $250,000 per seat.
“For Galactic, 2014 is the year that we plan to go to space, and start operating commercially,” said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides.
“We believe this moment will represent a major shift in humanity’s relationship with space ? the moment when the space environment becomes significantly more accessible to new people, new uses and new science,” Whitesides told SPACE.com.
Whitesides underscored the need for loosening governmental red tape to make this vision a reality.
In terms of Washington, D.C. processes, he said, “our major hope is that the export control reform process will conclude in a place that enables the U.S. to continue its global leadership of the?suborbital spaceflight sector.”
Years in the making, and years in the waiting for commercial space travel to become “rocket real,” is New Mexico’s Spaceport America. Virgin Galactic will establish its headquarters and operate its spaceflights from the sprawling site, billed as the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport.
A recent development is SpaceX use of Spaceport America to start flying its Falcon 9R reusable rocket ? an offshoot of the company’s?Grasshopper vehicle?that has repeatedly flown from McGregor, Texas. Last year, New Mexico officials announced a three-year agreement to lease land and facilities to SpaceX at Spaceport America for the venture.
In addition, Spaceport America’s Launch Site Operator License has just been renewed by the Federal Aviation Administration Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST). The license is required by the FAA for the spaceport to host licensed vertical and horizontal launches.
Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA), foresees milestone achievements for the facility, and for private spaceflight in general, in 2014. A majority of NMSA staff, for example, are soon to move to the on-site, newly outfitted Spaceport Operations Center.
“We have supported 20 launches to date and look forward to an increased launch rate in 2014. We are ready to support our tenants, Virgin Galactic and?SpaceX,” Anderson said.
Anderson is upbeat about the year ahead but watchful.
“In general, I think we will continue to see steady progress in the commercial space industry,” she said.
“Like any nascent industry, progress is not always measured in leaps and bounds but is achieved by methodical, diligent work by teams of professionals. I look forward to a year of great progress in the commercial space industry,” Anderson added.
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