A number of significant achievements have occurred in space technologies in the past couple of months and I thought I would use this month’s column to cover several of them. This filed is moving rapidly and it is impossible to cover all of them so I thought I would cover mostly a snapshot in time covering the past two months, of July and June 2021.
The month of July 2021 saw some important milestones for manned space flight. First, on July 11th, Richard Branson, a British billionaire, and five of his employees (including two pilots), flew in the Virgin Galactic Spaceship the VSS Unity from the New Mexican desert to an altitude over 80,000 meters and then glided down and landed safely on a runway close to where the journey started. The American Armed Services recognizes anything above the 80 km altitude as being “in space” and awards astronaut status to pilots that have achieved flight above this line. The VSS Unity does not launch from the ground like many current spacecrafts but instead is carried by a specially built airplane (The Virgin Eve) to about 15 km and then dropped. Once dropped the rocket engine of the Unity fires and carries the ship higher to its final altitude above 80,000 meters. Both the rocket and the plane return and end their journeys to runways near where they started. It is hoped that in the future the entire process can be repeated as quickly as the next day.
Less than 10 days later on July 20th, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Blue Origin launched their New Shepard rocket with four people. Blue Origin is the rocket company owned by Jeff Bezos the founder of Amazon and current owner of the Washington Post newspaper. Jeff Bezos, his brother and two other people boarded the spaceship which follows a more traditional rocket-based design than Virgin Galactic. The rocket, named after America’s first astronaut Alan Shepard, took the capsule with its payload of passengers above the 100 km Karman line internationally recognized as space. The rocket then descended and landed near its launch site and the capsule returned using parachutes to safely land the passengers on the ground in the Texas desert nearby.
The launches have been criticized as “Big toys for Billionaire Boys” but both launches are significant and important. First both were predominantly funded using private funds using little or no taxpayer resources for the development of the vehicles. Both projects were developed primarily to carry people first and not payloads, although both are also capable of carrying various payloads as well. Both support a new “Space Tourism” industry where people can pay to visit space even if the visit is very brief. The New Shepard didn’t even have a pilot on board, the entire trip was automatic. Both launched from new “space ports” in New Mexico and Texas. These two launches represent a significant advance in space travel.
Blue Horizon is working on its next generation rocket the New Glenn which is being designed to launch people into orbit around the earth. They are also working on a potential Moon lander. Virgin has also recently achieved success with its Virgin Orbit company which like Virgin Galactic uses planes to launch rockets. These rockets have successfully carried satellites into low earth orbit with the goal of reducing the costs associated with satellite launches.
However, these are not the only significant space travel events occurring. SpaceX also tested the first functional booster rocket the “Super Heavy” for its Starship space vehicle and expects to be able to launch the Starship into orbit on the Super Heavy possibly later this summer. The Super Heavy and Starship combination is expected to be able to conduct moon landings as soon as 2024.
China and the Growing Space Industry
In June the Chinese government successfully launched three people to man their space station. This makes China the third county to operate a manned space station. China and many other countries now are seeing new space startups that are working at reducing the costs for space technologies and spaceflight both manned and unmanned. Launches are now occurring in new locations like New Zealand and Alaska. Plans are being made for new space ports in Scotland, Finland, and Australia. Space is quickly becoming the next technology boom.