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Blue Origin launch
A test flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle earlier this year. The company is one of three on the vanguard of the suborbital human spaceflight industry. (credit: Blue Origin)

From airplanes to spacecraft

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On January 1, 1914, the mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida, Abram Phell, climbed into a Thomas Benoist flying boat and sat next to pilot Tony Jannus. Phell had won the privilege of being the first recorded commercial airline passenger, who paid $400 in an auction to fly on a scheduled flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa. Jannus picked up speed across the water and the Benoist was soon airborne. The flight across Tampa Bay took 23 minutes, and the publicity was priceless. A steamship took two hours along the same route and train travel considerably longer.

Are there historical analogs we can look to regarding the tremendous growth of commercial passenger air travel in the 20th century that might provide indicators for commercial suborbital and orbital spaceflight participants in the 21st century?

On April 28, 2001, American Dennis Tito shared the cramped crew compartment of a Soyuz spacecraft with Yuri Baturin and Talgat Musabayev, awaiting launch. Tito paid an estimated $20 million to become the first spaceflight participant to train for and fly to the International Space Station. The Soyuz rocket carrying the Soyuz TM-32 spacecraft lifted off smoothly. Two days later the spacecraft finally docked with the ISS. Tito spent more than seven days aboard the ISS before returning to Earth aboard Soyuz TM-31.

Are there historical analogs we can look to regarding the tremendous growth of commercial passenger air travel in the 20th century that might provide indicators for commercial suborbital and orbital spaceflight participants in the 21st century?

Reasons for commercial airline passenger growth

In the first two decades of commercial airline passenger flight, the novelty and danger of it gave way to convenience and luxury. World War I spurred research and development in aircraft design and propulsion. During the 1920s and the 1930s, it became a fiercely competitive business across North American and Europe. Successful airlines were operating as far away as Australia.

Three elements made the worldwide airline transportation capability possible: reliable airplane technology, destinations (and the routes to them), and, above all, paying passengers. A contributing factor to this growth was the need to transport mail and packages. “Air Mail” was born. For many airlines, mail transport made the airline profitable. Two of the earliest airlines both founded in 1920 are still operating today: KLM based in the Netherlands and Qantas in Australia.

There were so many individual commercial airlines operating in North America, Great Britain, and Europe that many were combined into one or two major airlines. American Airways and United Airlines were dominant in the United States during the twenties and thirties. Imperial Airways was formed from several British companies in 1924 to compete with French and German services; it specialized in long-distance travel to the furthest reaches of the British Empire.

While propeller-driven engines were the mainstay for decades, advances in interior comfort were the big draws for paying passengers. Enclosed passenger cabins with better sound-deadening material permitted passengers to carry on conversation aboard the Curtis Condor. Aircraft makers of larger airplanes worked to provide luxury appointments and unprecedented accommodations. The British Handley-Page H.P. 42 sported interiors typical of deluxe Pullman railway cars and meals were served on bone china, with silverware and crystal. This, indeed, was “First Class” in its day. If it was speed and style you wanted, you boarded a Lockheed Model 10 Electra that moved ten passengers to their destination at a cruising speed of 190 mph (305 km/h).

The commercial passenger market has remained in the subsonic realm for over half a century as a result of ticket affordability for the majority of passengers, technological maturity, and reasonable maintenance costs, among other reasons.

More pedestrian was the Douglas DC-3 introduced in 1936, but it was a game-changer for commercial passenger flight due to its lower operating cost and reliability; it also became a true workhorse during World War II. Boeing upped the technological stakes in 1940 with its 307 Stratoliner with the first-ever commercial pressurized cabin. This permitted the Stratoliner to cruise at 20,000 feet (6,000 meters) and avoid most storms. However, just ten were built. Boeing would not be a big commercial plane manufacturer until the advent of the jet age.

During World War II, American aircraft manufacturers converted to building military aircraft. The war profoundly affected commercial passenger flight. Development of the German jet toward the end of the war was the portent of peacetime aircraft development.

Still, post-war passenger flight entered a new era with such sleek aircraft as the Lockheed Constellation with its distinctive triple vertical stabilizers. It was the choice of many airlines for long-distance travel and over 800 were manufactured by the late 1950s.

Boeing’s military B-47 Stratojet and B-52 Stratofortress were technological groundbreakers for post-war commercial airliners. The British de Havilland Comet was the first production commercial passenger jet. However, the Boeing 707, which entered service in the fall of 1958, had superior engineering and numerous other advantages. The 707 was a bold business gamble for Boeing, which up to that time earned the bulk of its revenue from military contracts.

The Boeing 707 had a cruising speed of more than 570 mph (915 km/h) and a range that made non-stop intercontinental travel routine. Pan Am took delivery of its first 707 in October 1958 and immediately implemented passenger service from New York to Paris. The 707 cut flight time in half over that of turboprop-driven aircraft. Many other airlines soon acquired their own fleets of 707s.

Douglas Aircraft Company had been developing its own jet, the DC-8, which entered commercial service in 1959. The Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 were a boon to luxury and business travel. The advent of commercial passenger jets gave international travel an air of glamor. Passengers also appreciated the drastic reduction of travel time.

The order books at Boeing and Douglas were backlogged. Lockheed finally entered the commercial passenger jet business with its JetStar business jet in the early 1960s and L-1011 widebody in 1972. European aircraft manufacturers entered the jet age as well.

The next technological leap was the supersonic transport (SST). There were numerous design development studies of SSTs in the 1950s and 1960s conducted in the United States, England, and European countries. The only commercial SST to reach production and operation in the free world was the British-French Concorde. Its first commercial flight took place in 1976. The Russian Tupolev TU-144 preceded the Concorde in commercial passenger service but had only a brief operational history. The Concorde flew until 2003.

The commercial passenger market has remained in the subsonic realm for over half a century as a result of ticket affordability for the majority of passengers, technological maturity, and reasonable maintenance costs, among other reasons.

The dawn of personal spaceflight

It’s been more than a decade since the historic flights of SpaceShipOne. The radical-looking air-and-spacecraft was designed by Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites to respond to the challenge of the Ansari X PRIZE to build and fly the first private spacecraft to reach suborbital space. There were other challengers, but in the end, it was Rutan’s team that won the prize in 2004 and made aerospace history.

Watching this event with great interest was serial entrepreneur Richard Branson. As founder and successful operator of Virgin Atlantic airways, Branson saw this event as a harbinger of potential commercial passenger spaceflight. However, he also understood the very same essential elements commercial passenger flight of reliable technology, destinations, and paying passengers had to be present for personal spaceflight or there was no viable business model.

With Virgin Atlantic, Branson did not have to concern himself with aircraft technology; it had been proven with decades of passenger jet operation. He only had to focus on desirable routes and distinguishing and superior service. The successful flights of SpaceShipOne gave Branson the confidence suborbital spaceflight technology could be developed. Destination? The von Kármán line—the 100-kilometer threshold that demarcates the widely recognized threshold of space. Once crossing that, spaceflight participants would technically become astronauts. The real payoff for them would be the view of Earth from that lofty altitude. With the right marketing, Branson felt he could draw more than enough passengers to make his new company profitable.

“I’ll be bitterly disappointed if I’m not into space by the end of the year,” Branson stated shortly before last year’s accident.

To be commercially feasible, a larger multi-passenger spacecraft and carrier aircraft would have to be designed and built. These became SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. Branson and his partners formed The Spaceship Company to design and manufacture these unique air and spacecraft in Mojave, California. Branson’s goal of operational flight was always optimistic and proved elusive. Dates for first passenger flight came and went.

The years for Virgin Galactic to become operational dragged on as development test flights and design changes stretched out the timeline. Finally, in August 2014, Branson was asked by Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business about an update on timing for passenger flights.

“I’ll be bitterly disappointed if I’m not into space by the end of the year,” Branson stated cautiously. “The rockets have now tested successfully. We’ve got three more rocket tests and then we should be up, up and away by the end of the year. That should be the start of the program. The spaceport’s ready. We are now in the last few weeks before finally embarking on the space program.” At that point, Virgin Galactic had over 700 deposits from prospective spaceflight participants, still waiting to go. Spaceport America in New Mexico was built with Virgin Galactic as the anchor tenant, but years of delay have forced the spaceport to look for other revenue streams.

Then there was the flight accident of SpaceShipTwo on October 31, 2014. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) spent the next nine months investigating the accident that destroyed SpaceShipTwo and killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury. The NTSB published its executive summary of the accident investigation in July 2015 (see “A failure of foresight and oversight”, The Space Review, August 3, 2015). The second SpaceShipTwo is under construction at The Spaceship Company, and will undergo an extensive flight test program. It remains premature to set a date for operational flights of spaceflight participants for Virgin Galactic.

In contrast to the open development program of Virgin Galactic’s launch vehicle and spacecraft, founder Jeff Bezos chose to be highly secretive about his company Blue Origin, founded in 2000. When Bezos felt it advantageous, information was released via the company’s website. There were the occasional interviews with engineers who outlined progress and plans.

Blue Origin conducted a launch abort test of the capsule in 2012 and released a video of the test. The launch vehicle and its configuration was still a closely-guarded secret. The engine that emerged in 2013 was the BE-3, burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants. On April 29, 2015, Blue Origin conducted a launch of the New Shepard launch vehicle powered by a single BE-3 engine, with a human-rated six-passenger capsule as its payload. The booster performed perfectly, and the capsule achieved an altitude of more than 93.5 kilometers. The main parachutes deployed successfully and the capsule landed within the Blue Origin range complex. The vehicle’s propulsion module, though, did not make a powered landing as planned, crashing instead on the desert floor.

With this impressive and successful first launch of the New Shepard launch vehicle and its capsule, Blue Origin unveiled a completely revamped website, video, and images of the mission and details of the engine, booster and capsule. It also described its plans for future suborbital flights for spaceflight participants.

Blue Origin subsequently showed it was serious about being a key player as a provider of launch services and hardware. In September 2014, ULA and Blue Origin held a joint press conference announcing their partnership in the development of a new rocket engine. This engine was the more powerful BE-4 and, in fact, had been in development for several years. The company acquired the inactive Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and will be launching orbital payload missions from there. However, it is the New Shepard with its BE-3 engine that will be ferrying passengers to suborbit from its Texas launch complex.

XCOR Aerospace is the third active player for the suborbital spaceflight participant market. Its Lynx Mark I spacecraft is still under construction but will probably begin its test flights in 2016. The Lynx spaceplane, with one pilot and one passenger, will take off from its runway, quickly go supersonic and continue until it reaches its suborbital destination. XCOR estimates weightlessness will last roughly six minutes, with an impressive view of the Earth below and space beyond visible through the canopy. It will then reenter and land on the same runway it departed from.

Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and XCOR all have the spacecraft in development that can make routine suborbital spaceflight a reality. They all share the same, if all-too-brief destination in space beyond the von Kármán line. They all have waiting lists of spaceflight participants. Thus, these companies all have the same essential elements that helped to make commercial passenger flight a vast improvement over other surface-based transportation methods. However, suborbital flight, as brief as it is, is far more expensive than conventional flight on a per minute basis.

For example, it is only 11 minutes from launch of the New Shepard to landing of the capsule. To extend the period of engagement, the suborbital flight experience must embrace every aspect before, during, and after the flight itself. Unlike commercial passenger flight, the builders of the spacecraft are also the providers of the service.

Ironically, the most active form of personal spaceflight to date has also been the most expensive: orbital spaceflight. For years, this has been the domain of the Russians, with Space Adventures handling the marketing, paperwork, and countless other details in sending wealthy spaceflight participants to the International Space Station.

Boeing is working to change that. The company has won a contract to build NASA’s commercial crew capsule, along with SpaceX. Boeing, however, has been very forthright in stating its commercial personal spaceflight goals for its CST-100 Starliner capsule.

“We started to realize the potential to develop for commercial customers a premium spacecraft interior architecture,” Rachelle Ornan, regional director of sales and marketing for Boeing Commercial Airplanes told SpaceNews last year. “It’s leaps and bounds different from interiors of the past. It’s less government-issue looking; it’s a lot cleaner, simpler and more cheerful.”

The economics of commercial passenger flight and personal spaceflight are not analogous, but they share similar elements. This decade will determine the viability and extent of personal spaceflight.

For several years now, Boeing has been partnering with Bigelow Aerospace in Nevada, which is designing its BA-330 space habitat as a potential destination of the Starliner capsule. The partnership between Boeing and Bigelow Aerospace is a synergistic one and mutually beneficial. The CST-100 Starliner capsules interior will be configured differently from those designed to travel to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program. Boeing sees a very significant future in commercial spaceflight participants flying to orbiting Bigelow modules.

“We believe there’s a huge pent-up demand for this,” said Jay Ingham, Bigelow Aerospace vice president and program manager. “We’re betting that there’s a huge amount of growth in this area, and we’re positioning ourselves to take advantage of that.”

SpaceX has not been as vocal as Boeing of its plans for the of its Dragon spacecraft to ferry spaceflight participants to orbit. However, Elon Musk’s successful Tesla Motors venture proves he can manufacture an automobile for personal transportation in a very competitive market, and do it successfully. Musk will not miss the opportunity for SpaceX to engage spaceflight participants as Boeing intends to do.

The economics of commercial passenger flight and personal spaceflight are not analogous, but they share similar elements. This decade will determine the viability and extent of personal spaceflight.