These are the Spaceships That Will Take Tourists to Infinity and Beyond

By Gerald Lynch on at

A weekend in Bognor Regis, or a trip beyond the Earth’s atmosphere? Ten years since the Ansari X prize kickstarted this latest race towards space tourism becoming the norm, it now looks as if the holidays of the future could very well leave this planet far behind.

If you’ve got the dough of course. A small number of pioneering space tourists have already boldly gone where few have gone before. But with the likes of Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and XCOR all hoping to make the trips of sci-fi dreams a commonplace reality, a journey to the stars may become a possibility not just for the super rich -- just the relatively rich instead.

To mark World Space Week 2014 (running until October 10th), here’s a look at some of the craft set to take us to infinity and beyond (or at least into near-Earth orbit).

Virgin Galactic

(UPDATE: On October 31st 2014, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crashed due to a "system anomaly". A huge tragedy and a major set back for the Virgin Galactic team, it's not yet clear how this will affect the ambitious space program. The original article follows.)

Just as NASA’s space shuttles required giant rocket boosters to take them up and out of the Earth’s atmosphere, Virgin Galactic’s space tourist expeditions will rely on two craft to complete their journeys -- the SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo Virgin Mothership Eve.

As you’d expect from its name, the "Mothership" WhiteKnightTwo (pictured above) does the heavy lifting. The largest all-carbon composite vehicle that’s ever been built, it clamps onto the crew-carrying SpaceShipTwo, taking the smaller ship to an altitude of about 50,000ft between the two fuselage of its 140ft wingspan before releasing its payload. With a range of over 2,000 nautical miles and the ability to carry a cargo weighing 15,875 kilograms, the WhiteKnightTwo remains surprisingly agile, capable of flying zero-g parabolas and pulling 6g turns.

The SpaceShipTwo will be the craft that future space tourists will become most intimately familiar with though. Housing two crew members and six passengers, the 60ft long vessel is similar in size to an executive jet.

Once the WhiteKnightTwo has taken the SpaceShipTwo to its drop off point miles above the ground, it's own hybrid engine (powered by hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene) kicks in. This shoots the craft from 0-250mph in eight seconds, pushing SpaceShipTwo to its target height of 68 miles -- 6 miles above the Karman Line (the internationally recognised boundary between the Earth's atmosphere and space). Upon re-entry, its wings fold up to slow the ship down and keep temperatures low, before unfolding once more at an altitude of 14 miles for a smooth ride back to Earth.

Each SpaceShipTwo passenger gets a side and overhead window view of the silent space surrounding them, with the journey to near-space and back taking two and a half hours. The highlight, of course, would be the opportunity to experience weightlessness -- for six minutes at the climax of the journey, all passengers could experience the effects of zero gravity.

Delayed numerous times, the first Virgin Galactic flight to space with paying customers is expected to take off in Spring of 2015. However, there's a "but" and it's a big one. Three test flights of the SpaceShipTwo have seen it only reach an altitude of around 13 miles -- a long way off the 62-mile height required for Virgin Galactic to receive an FAA licence to carry passengers. Don't go laying down the life-savings just yet then.

Ticket Price: £155,900

XCOR Aerospace

Don't like the sound of sharing your celestial moment with a bunch of strangers? Looking for a more private space adventure than what Virgin Galactic can offer? Then book yourself onboard one of XCOR Aerospace's Space Expeditions, where you'll get a personal trip alongside one of XCOR's pilots.

While XCOR's Lynx Mark I craft will only take you to the edge of space, the Lynx II, flying from spaceports in Mojave and Curacao will match Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo by taking you up beyond the Karman Line to heights of 338,000ft, where you'll experience weightlessness for six minutes before the conclusion of an hour long flight sees you return to terra firma.

Powered by four XR-5K18 rocket engines (good for use on up to 5,000 flights), the 27.9ft craft (wingspan 24ft) has a max thrust of 11,600lbs, hitting Mach 2.9 for three minutes, and pulling 4g for 25 seconds upon re-entry.

Flying four or more times each day, XCOR Aerospace is hoping to kick-off sub-orbital flights by Spring of 2015.

Ticket Price: £62,365 for Lynx Mark II, £59,250 for Lynx Mark I

SpaceX

Founded by entrepreneur and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, SpaceX's star-chasing ambitions cross both commercial and consumer divides, with a whole host of prototype rocket technologies in development with the intention of carrying cargo to the International Space Station, NASA astronauts and, eventually, sightseers too. SpaceX's space tourists may well stop off at the proposed Bigelow Commercial Space Station, a private orbital complex hoped to be in operation by 2015.

What they almost certainly will be doing is hitching a ride on SpaceX's Dragon V2 spacecraft. Standing 20 feet tall and with a diameter of 12.1 feet, it looks like a classic space capsule, and would use the Falcon 9v.1.1 as its launch rocket.

Carrying as many as seven passengers, the Dragon v2 has been designed to be capable of docking with the ISS for 210 days. A reusable craft, it makes use of the first fully 3D-printed engine, the SuperDraco. Printed of Inconel (a nickel / iron alloy), eight SuperDraco engines in total would be in use on the craft, capable of 16,000lbs of thrust. Pulling 3.5gs upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, the Dragon V2 lands on retractable telescopic feet, with both propulsive and parachute landing equipment available to make landing on almost any terrain feasible.

Ticket Price: TBC (£312,000 speculated)

Boeing

Boeing's New Space Taxi Has the Cleanest Cabin on Earth

With NASA's rather surprising decision to split the Commercial Crew Program prize between Boeing's CST-100 and SpaceX's Dragon 2 capsule, America is officially back in the manned space exploration game. And even better, our astronauts will be shuttled to the ISS in style aboard the spacious CST-100 from Boeing.

The CST-100, like the Dragon 2, is designed for a singular mission: ferry five passengers—up to seven in a pinch—between the planet's surface and the International Space Station in low Earth orbit. The craft is rated for 60 hours of free flight and can remain attached to the ISS for up to 210 days before it must return to Earth.

Should commercial space stations, such as the one proposed by Bigelow Aerospace, actually come online in the next few years, NASA would reportedly have no problem delivering to them as well. So really, it would be less of a taxi and more of a Zipcar.

Boeing's New Space Taxi Has the Cleanest Cabin on Earth

Now, there's a good reason this thing looks almost exactly like the Orion Space Capsule. That's because Boeing recycled that design for this program after narrowly losing the Orion contract to Lockheed Martin. It's exterior shell utilizes a unique weldless design to house the pressurized inner cabin and can be reused for up to ten trips before requiring replacement. The 16 foot tall, 15 foot wide, 10 tonne vehicle may have slightly smaller exterior dimensions than the Orion. But, like the Doctor's Tardis, the CST-100 is bigger on the inside. Comfier too.

Apollo-era crew modules were nothing short of revolutionary for the times they were built in but because they had to be so versatile their cabins were crammed full of redundant and potentially unnecessary systems and consoles. However, because it does exactly one thing—travelling to the relatively short distance to the ISS and back—all of the extraneous support systems can be done away with. This results in an astonishingly open and spacious capsule interior. What's more, the flight controls are designed to be far more intuitive than the menagerie of blinking lights and toggles of the Apollo era.

Boeing's New Space Taxi Has the Cleanest Cabin on Earth

Passengers won't even really see or interact with the actual command console—Boeing has designated it proprietary technology—they will be instead issued "electronic flight bags". These tablets operate like Harmony remotes aboard the CST-100, controlling every port, engine, subsystem, and vent that previously required a toggle switch and blinking light directly from the device. The flight controls have been drastically simplified, not only to make them more intuitive for the astronauts and reduce their training times, but also because the capsule handles most of the flight control autonomously.

With all that extra space, Boeing has spent an inordinate amount of effort making the capsule's interior are posh as the First Class section of a 737. That includes more ergonomic accommodations, including frickin' Wi-Fi. In fact, the ambient LED lighting aboard the CST-100 is actually from a 737—it's Boeing's Sky Lighting system.

Construction on the first three CST-100s is just starting to get underway at the Commercial Crew Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The capsule must first pass a pad abort test in 2016 and an unmanned test launch the following year before it enters service in the middle of 2017.

As with the SpaceX craft, early trips will be exclusively available to NASA-picked astronauts. But as time goes on, Boeing plans to open the CST-100 up to private space explorers too.

Ticket Price: Up to £25,000,000

Additional reporting: Andrew Tarantola 

Image Credits: Virgin Galactic, Wikipedia (12, 3), Boeing (123), Beyond EarthAmerica Space