Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace to fly scientists into space


Private space companies Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace have announced the first commercial contracts to fly scientists into space as part of an emerging commercial suborbital space market.

Virgin Galactic signed a contract with the Colorado-based Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) for two tickets to space and has six more seats reserved for the institute.

The deal, announced late last month, has a value of roughly US$1.6 million and is the first agreement Virgin Galactic has signed with scientists – up until now, all the company’s roughly 400 deposits have been from space tourists who want to fly on the SpaceShipTwo craft.

SpaceShipTwo will fly over 100 kilometres above Earth, allowing scientists to conduct microgravity, biology, climate and astronomy research. In addition to SwRI carrying out its own experiments, it will also fly experiments and personnel from other American research institutes.
“This agreement signals the enormous scientific potential of the Virgin spaceflight system,” George Whitesides, President and CEO of Virgin Galactic, said in a statement. “Virgin Galactic will be able to offer researchers flights to space that are unprecedented in frequency and cost. Science flights will be an important growth area for the company in the years to come, building on the strong commercial success already demonstrated by deposits received from over 400 individuals for Virgin’s space experience”.
“We at SwRI are very excited about this agreement,” Dr Alan Stern, Associate Vice President of SwRI’s Space Division, said in the statement. “Initially, two of our payload specialists will be flying on Virgin Galactic, conducting biomedical monitoring, atmospheric imaging, and microgravity planetary regolith experiments. We’re excited to be flying with Virgin Galactic to pioneer research missions on their amazing vehicles; we look forward to the not so distant day when entire Virgin Galactic flights are filled with researchers and their experiments.”

Stern is one of the two SwRI scientists selected to ride on the first flight under the deal with Virgin Galactic. “We’ve already designed and built three experiments to fly on these flights,” Stern told

Virgin Galactic was founded by Sir Richard Branson with the aim of offering private trips into suborbital space. A ticket aboard SpaceShipTwo costs roughly US$200 000. SpaceShipTwo is an outgrowth of SpaceShipOne, which won the US$10 million Ansari X Prize for reusable private spacecraft in 2004. It was designed by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites of Mojave, California. Rutan is tasked with developing the suborbital vehicle as well as its WhiteKnightTwo mothership.

SpaceShipTwo has space for six passengers and two pilots. The first vehicle, called the VSS Enterprise, is undergoing glide testing, and will conduct rocket-powered testing later this year. Virgin Galactic expects the first passenger flights to take off by 2012.

In preparation for commercial flights, Virgin Galactic recently unveiled its Spaceport America in Upham, New Mexico.

At the same time, SwRI has also partnered with the California-based XCOR Aerospace to take scientists and their experiments on six flights aboard the Lynx suborbital spaceplane. SwRI has options to buy three more tickets. The contracts mark a first for the reusable suborbital launch industry.
“XCOR feels SwRI signing their first contract with us demonstrates the superiority of the Lynx platform over others in the field,” XCOR chief operating officer Andrew Nelson said in a statement.
“These are exciting times for the suborbital research field,” said Stern, who will fly aboard the Lynx. “XCOR and SwRI are blazing a pioneering trail with this engagement and setting the stage for others to follow with their experiments.”
“SwRI is a recognized leader in the field,” said Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR. “They are one of the best research firms in the world for space science and engineering, and their researchers have a phenomenal ability to explore innovative concepts. I look forward to the pioneering work this partnership will achieve.”

The Lynx vehicle is a two-seat craft that will take off and land on a runway. It will be able to fly to a height of around 60 kilometres. Flight testing should begin sometime next year.

Meanwhile, a South African company announced earlier this month that it had become the first African space tourism agent after signing a deal with XCOR Aerospace in December last year. Orbital Horizon, based in Durban, will sell tickets for an ‘affordable’ R626 000 instead of the nearly R2 million for SpaceShipTwo.

Brad Inggs, who owns the company, told Times Live that space tourists would have a three minute window to experience weightlessness and a ‘once in a lifetime’ view. Flights will take place from the United States, but Inggs said he hoped that the Lynx would eventually operate in South Africa.

NASA is also exploring the possibilities of private spaceflight. Last week the head of NASA said that America must be ‘unafraid’ of a new future of private spaceflight and expressed confidence that private enterprises can come up with a solution to replace the space shuttle. NASA chief Charles Bolden said he was, “certain that commercial entities can deliver”.

The US space shuttle will be retired later this year after thirty years of service, leaving NASA searching for a replacement vehicle to reach the International Space Station (ISS).
“We have got to develop commercial capability to get into low Earth orbit,” Bolden said. “The nation needs to become unafraid of exploration. We need to become unafraid of risks.” He said that NASA was looking at a 2015/2016 timeframe for developing a new vehicle to take crew into orbit, but said that was ‘dependent’ on private industry. After the shuttle retires in June, American astronauts will have to rely on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for access to the ISS, as they did following the last shuttle disaster.

One successful private space enterprise that has launched a space capsule into orbit is SpaceX. In December 2010 it became the first private company to successfully launch and retrieve its own space capsule from orbit. Bolden said the achievement was ‘awesome’. SpaceX is working on a launch that will carry cargo to space later this year.

The December launch was part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) programme, which will provide cargo flights to the ISS. NASA awarded SpaceX a launch services contract in 2008 that allowed it to compete for missions using its Falcon launch vehicles. SpaceX will make a dozen flights to carry cargo to the ISS after the shuttle retires, according to PCMag.

However, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and XCOR are not alone as there are more than half a dozen other companies working on commercial space flight, including Orbital Sciences, United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, Alliant Techsystems and Excalibur Almaz, AFP reports. In addition, in September last year Boeing announced it was partnering with Space Adventures to sell commercial space flights aboard its seven-seat CST-100 spacecraft, which should be operational by 2015.

Pic: SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise in October 2010. Credit: Mark Greenberg