Issue 2, 17 October 2005 -- 36th Apollo Anniversary Year

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Virgin moves closer to first-time experience

Virgin Galactic's recent newsletter reports on their agreement with Scaled Composites and Mojave Aerospace Company to form a new manufacturing company, The Spaceship Company, which will build a fleet of suborbital craft from the designs of SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo currently under development.

These commercial spacecraft will use the X-Prize-winning rocket motor and wing-feathering technologies.

More details at: http://www.virgingalactic.com/Newsletter/Sept_newsletter/html_page/htmlpage_sept.htm

The essential point about the activities of Virgin and similar companies is that, if once they succeed in establishing suborbital spaceflight as a commercially viable proposition, then incremental improvements can take them to higher altitudes, then into orbit, then into higher orbit, then to the Moon and beyond. These improvements will be driven by the same kind of commercial pressures which have driven improvements in rail, road, sea and air travel over the past couple of centuries.

They depend upon favourable government legislation, but not on government programmes as such.

Once this process reaches orbit, government astronauts will have to fly to the Moon or beyond in order to earn their astronaut wings. Space travellers in low Earth orbit will no longer be "astronauts", but space passengers and crew. It is this -- not Shenzhou 6 or the Bush "Vision" -- which will make human access to space as permanent, as commonplace and as unremarkable as access to air travel is now.

On 10 November the British Interplanetary Society is hosting a one-day space tourism conference, featuring many of the personalities who have been pressing for public access to space for many years. I look forward to reporting on what is said at that conference.

-- Stephen Ashworth

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Forthcoming anniversaries

On 2 November 2005, the International Space Station will have been continuously occupied for five years (not counting the two-day taxi flight which brought the first crew).

This is an achievement indeed, given the continuing problems with the Shuttle. A flavour of the hair-tearing which the insecure ET insulation is causing is conveyed by an article by James Oberg in the Fall 2005 Ad Astra (.pdf available from his website) -- "Optimists hope that a new mission [i.e. the second RTF] could be mounted early in 2006, although the middle of the year seemed more likely to them. That's a delay of 10 to 12 months or perhaps more."

The longest period of occupancy of a space station so far was Mir's 9 years 354 days (7 Sept. 1989 to 27 Aug. 1999) (=3641 days). Assuming that no further emergencies force a retreat, the ISS will equal Mir for continuous occupation on 22 October 2010.

9 April 2006 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the iconic Victorian engineer, born in Portsmouth, chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, and designer of the revolutionary steamships Great Western, Great Britain and Great Eastern. The technical innovations for which Brunel is remembered were of course developed in pursuit of company profit, not a programme of government research.

Some of Brunel's modern successors will, as already noted, be present in person at the BIS in London on 10 November.

2007 sees not only the 50th anniversary of the start of the Space Age, of course, but also the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the first permanent British settlement on the North American mainland, on 24 May 1607.

A study of the failure-prone and haphazard history of British and European colonisation of the New World demonstrates that the present epoch of hesitant and erratic progress in space is not at all unusual in historical terms.

-- S.A.

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Europe's Martian Dream

In mid-2004, ESA published its first design study for a manned Mars mission. It was imagined that ESA would collaborate closely with the Russians, particularly in the revival of their Energiya rocket, but not with America.

The study proclaimed itself to be an "overall architecture assessment". It went about its business by designing in detail the vehicles for one specific, highly inefficient Mars mission, and then drawing the overall conclusion that this was the only way to go to Mars. I estimate that ESA must have spent at least 750,000 euros (plus overheads) on preparing this ridiculous report.

The juggernaut of a Mars spacecraft which they present would require, for each single mission to Mars, more heavy lift launches than the entire Apollo and Skylab programmes together. It surely parallels NASA's infamous "90-Day Report", which saddled manned Mars missions with a price tag of 450 bn dollars -- a figure which was subsequently rounded up to a cool trillion, and still appears from time to time in news reports (I saw it on the BBC website a few days ago).

A critical account of the ESA study has already appeared in Mars Today. My own description and analysis is due to appear in Spaceflight magazine, December 2005 issue, p.454-458. Since my article puts the study well and truly through the document shredder, it's just as well that I'm not planning to ask ESA for a job anytime soon.

-- S.A.

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Astronautical Evolution is an occasional e-mail newsletter devoted to news and comment from an Astronautical Evolutionist perspective, sent to all Space Age associates. To subscribe / unsubscribe / contribute / comment, please e-mail Stephen Ashworth, sa(at)astronist.demon.co.uk.


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