Chair Force Engineer

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Explorer: Beyond the Buzz

The web is abuzz with Space Adventures's plan to procure the Explorer spaceplane and operate it from a variety of destinations like the United Arab Emirates. The most bold claim is that this system will beat Rocketplane Ltd. and Virgin Galactic to the punch. Without hearing the details, my reaction to the claim is extremely skeptical.

In the past, Space Adventures has (smartly) refused to be bound to any particular launch system for space tourism. Over the years they have promoted different companies, like Xerus from XCor (I don't know what the status on Xerus is now that XCor is throwing its weight into rocket racing.)

One of the systems promted by Space Adentures was the Cosmopolis XXI, built by Myasischev and launched from an M-55 aircraft. While the mockup of the craft was unveiled in 2002, very little has been said about the project since then. At the 2005 X-Prize Cup, the mockup was again on display (sans M-55 mothership.) I saw nobody from Myasischev or Space Adventures to extoll the virtues of the Cosmopolis system.

The craft at the heart of the Explorer system is based on the Cosmopolis XXI but enlarged to carry five paying passengers. The craft would use a solid rocket, which represents a low developmental risk. However, the enlarged spacecraft may require a new mothership (much like the design of the larger SpaceShipTwo necessitated the creation of the larger White KnightTwo.)

When it comes to Russian aerospace companies in the post-Cold War period, their bark is far worse than their bite. They are notoriously bad at making bold claims in hopes of luring in foreign investors (examples include offers to restart production of the Energia Heavy-Lift rocket and plans for a solar-electric Mars mission.) Fortunately, most foreign investors have had the necessary facts to help them know a rat when they see one. The situation is tragic, because the Russian aerospace industry does have a lot of potential and imagination but very little funding to proceed. Sound space projects like the Kliper spacecraft and Angara rocket have been delayed, while promising fighters like the Yak-141 and Su-47 are now grounded.

Space Adventures has the right idea by trying to promote Space Tourism around the globe. The United Arab Emirates is a perfect spot, as the country is very affluent, and it has a reputation for being a high-class bazaar to the world. Unless I see evidence otherwise, though, I think it's unwise for Sapce Adventures to marry itself to the Cosmopolis system. Should SpaceShipTwo or Rocketplane XP see the "black sky" before Cosmopolis does, Space Adventures shouldn't hesistate in buying into the rival system.

[EDIT 20 FEB 06] According to the March 15, 2002 press release from Space Adventures about the Cosmopolis C-21, development time of the two-passenger spacecraft would take approximately two years after being funded (first flight was anticipated by 2004.) It should be noted that a larger version of the C-21 would probably require more development time. Now that the Ansari family's Proda firm has forked over the money, the best Explorer can hope for is a first flight in 2008. Space Adventures must be banking on Rocketplane XP running into delays which will preclude a safe flight, or they may expect a more relaxed regularoty environment in the UAE which will allow them to start passenger operations first.

Also worth noting is the flight trajectory for the Cosmopolis 21. Craft like the Pegasus and SpaceShipOne have been carried to around 40,000 feet (about 12 km,) dropped while in a horizontal attitude, and executed a stressful pitchup maneuver while under rocket power. C-21, according to the original plan, will be launched at an altitude of 20 km and an attitude of 40-60 degrees. This tells me that C-21 doesn't have as much delta-V as SpaceShipOne, or that its structure isn't designed to handle the powered pitchup.

The advantage to C-21 appears to be economic. For a price of $98,000 per ticket in the original proposal, it's about half of what Virgin, Rocketplane, and PlanetSpace have discussed. By expanding from two to five passengers, Space Adventures will either pad its profit margins or lower ticket prices (probably the former in the short term, and the latter once development costs have been recouped.)