Human Space Launch
A new aspect of space infrastructure is the development of suborbital reusable launch vehicles (RLVs). Unlike sounding rockets, these vehicles are designed to land intact and be flown again. Stimulated by the $## million Ansari X PRIZE, won in 2004 by Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne vehicle, several companies are actively developing such vehicles to serve space tourism, research, and other applications. The technical approaches of the companies vary, from vehicles that take off and land horizontally on runways to vehicles that launch and land vertically.
The SpaceShipTwo vehicle, scheduled to begin commercial service by 2010, is the product of The Spaceship Company, a joint venture between Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic. The design of SpaceShipTwo is similar to that of SpaceShipOne, the only suborbital spacecraft with a demonstrated capacity for carrying humans. A carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, unveiled in July 2008, is designed to carry SpaceShipTwo to launch altitude and release the spacecraft, which will then ignite rockets to achieve suborbital altitude before returning to the Earth. SpaceShipTwo can accommodate up to six passengers and two pilots. In addition to human suborbital spaceflight, Virgin Galactic has explored the idea of launching suborbital cargoes aboard SpaceShipTwo, such as U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climatology experiments.
NASA’s efforts with its Commercial Crew Program and Space Launch System primarily focus on launching humans into Earth orbit and beyond. However, other organizations and companies are pursuing the goal of reusable suborbital launch vehicles for humans.
Although no suborbital human-rated vehicles flew in 2009, there was considerable progress by several companies actively developing such vehicles. Among the most visible of these was the formal unveiling in December 2009 of SpaceShipTwo, a suborbital vehicle built by The Spaceship Company, a joint venture of Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites. The event culminated a year of continued development of SpaceShipTwo and its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo. In May 2009, Virgin Galactic announced the beginning of tests of the rocket motor that will power SpaceShipTwo on its suborbital flights. The hybrid rocket motor uses a solid fuel and liquid nitrous oxide oxidizer developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation, the company that developed the rocket motor for SpaceShipOne.