With all the noise around SpaceX and Elon Musk, what with the recent successful docking with the ISS and all, it’d be easy to forget there are other players in the burgeoning commercial space race too. Excalibur Almaz is Britain’s answer to SpaceX, and it’s planning to send men back to the moon and beyond — and as early as 2015, too.
Based on the Isle of Man, Excalibur Almaz is a private company, which was set up back in 2005, with many, many years of space-faring experience behind it. Its current team consists of a true multinational bunch, including a tour de force of American commercial space pioneers, NASA consultants, and Russian engineers and cosmonauts. The company bought four space-proven Russian reusable re-entry vehicles (RRVs) — they’re the space capsules you see shooting through the atmosphere ferrying people safely back to Earth. EA also has two Salyut-class space station units, which it plans to use as both a launch platform and as part of a larger spacecraft combined with the RRVs. The Russian space vehicles will be retrofitted with modern technology and propulsion to bring them up to par, both inside and out, before blasting them into space. The idea is that the Almaz fleet already has the bones to get into and survive in the rigours of space. It also has a fully functioning and space-tested emergency escape system that has genuinely been used in a real-life space emergency — something that’s pretty crucial if you’re sending men into space.
Unlike another British-at-its-core venture, Virgin Galactic, EA is going to send men beyond low Earth orbit, and plans to use its system to send men on a trip to the moon and beyond, something mankind hasn’t done since the last of NASA’s moon landings in 1972. The exciting thing is that the company reckons it should be able to do just that by the end of 2015 — it’s just 24 to 30 months away from its first proper flight. Unlike the nation state space pioneers like NASA before it, anyone with enough money, and decent health, can buy a ticket, join the program and take a trip to the moon. I say anyone. EA reckons it’ll cost between £64 and £96 million per seat, so that’s probably more like any billionaire or well-funded research institution, not your average Lord Alan Sugars of this world.
Space expeditionists — Art Dula, EA’s CEO, says these people will be much more than just simple space tourists — will board one of the RRVs, after they’ve coughed up their dough for the pricey tickets. Flying three at time, they will be blasted into space atop a commercial Proton rocket launched from Kazakhstan. Once up in orbit, the RRV will join with the Salyut-class space station, which will provide the living quarters for the astronauts. The combined spacecraft will then be able to travel to the moon and beyond, with a mission schedule between five days and a month, depending on what the explorers fancy. EA will be able to design bespoke missions to suit the paying clientele. If you fancy a quick 5-day jaunt, EA can load the system up with chemical rockets and speed to the moon and back in no time at all. However, if you fancied a more leisurely cruise to our cherished orbiting hunk of rock, low weight ion drives can be used instead enabling much longer mission durations.
EA is quick to point out that there aren’t any currently operating systems capable of this kind of thing — SpaceX has its impressive Dragon unmanned system, but nothing that can take actual people into space currently, while Virgin Galactic won’t even be leaving low Earth orbit. By using Salyut-class space station units with 90 cubic metres of pressurised living space, it’ll also be comparatively spacious when compared to the likes of the 19-cubic-metre Lockheed Martin Orion capsule, the most technically advanced spacecraft currently in development.
Space expeditions aren’t the only thing on the cards for Excalibur Almaz, however. Like the Google founder and James Cameron-backed Planetary Resources, EA is also talking up the ability to use its system of RRVs and space stations (which have about 15 years operating life each) to go out and mine near earth asteroids. In fact, there’s no reason why EA’s space stations can’t be docked with other spacecraft to facilitate deeper space missions. The logistics of that kind of venture are certainly further off than sending men to the moon, but it’s all within the realms of possibility for the British-based space venture. As Dula says, “we’re witnessing a paradigm shift from the inside; it’ll never go back to national space exploration” so its up to companies like EA to do it for us.
I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to see men going back to the moon. Space missions give us something genuinely new and interesting to aim for, and I’m glad to see that Britain and the Isle of Man will be playing such a central role as we really should. Currently 30 out of the 54 satellite manufacturers are all based on the Isle of Man, and it’s worth some £8 billion to the British economy — I guess you could say we’re sort of like the quiet underpinnings of modern space technology. At any rate, SpaceX can go eat its heart out — we’ve got our own British space company to champion in the new commercial space race now.
If you want to see the Excalibur Almaz RRV for yourself, meet some real-life cosmonauts, and a former NASA space physician, you can. Get your butt down to the free Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster tomorrow from 9am till 5pm where EA’s putting on an exhibition.