While Ascend (now part of Flightglobal) made the headlines two years ago by noting that in our analysis the Isle of Man was fifth favourite ‘nation’ to put man back on the Moon, they may yet become the main favourite.   For the Isle of Man-based Excalibur Almaz again set forth their proposal for a a lunar flyby expendition for two space tourists at the 3rd Space Tourism Conference at the Royal Aeronautical Society, London.  

excalibur-almaaz.jpgExcalibur Almaz Salyut space station/space liner with RRV attached.  Courtesy: Excalibur Almaz 

Having noted that the Isle of Man has become a space powerhouse with 30 out of 54 satellite operators based there, Art Dula, Chairman of Excalibur Almaz, itemised their plan which involves the use of the Apollo-shaped Almaz capsule to carry tourist astronauts around the Moon.  The Almaz RRV (Reusable Re-entry Vehicle) capsule is small with a habitable volume of only 4.5 cubic meters (compared to 14.5 cubic meters for NASA’s Orion) but it does have a back hatch allowing it do dock rearwards with a spacious Salyut space station module (of 90 cubic metres) that will use Hall electric propulsion thrusters to slowly get itself back and forwards from the moon and the L2 Langrangian point. Tickets for the flights are set at $150 million.  Crew would be launched on a Soyuz FG launch vehicle while the Space Station/Space Liner would be launched by a Proton.  As a key part of the mission the stations launched (they have two converted Salyut stations) will be fully insured.

Of course, cost was not the only thing worrying the audience at the conference.  Art Dula admitted that the space station would need a shielded area for the crew to protect them from high energy particles emitted from the Sun.  There were also concerns expressed that having a rear hatch in the main heat shield of the Almaz RRV crew return capsule may not keep its integrity during re-entry.  Dula scotched that doubt by noting that earlier Soviet versions of the Almaz capsule had flown and returned to Earth successfully already.

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Excalibur Almaz plans to fly to the L2 Lagrangian point as part of its mission profile.  Courtesy: Excalibur Almaz

It is not just Art Dula’s outift that is planning lunar tourism flights.  The travel agent for space missions Space Adventures, which has already previously arranged several Soyuz space tourism trips to the International Space Station, noted that it a similar lunar orbit tourism plan using Soyuz capsules. 

The Soyuz capsule is to carry two tourist astronauts and a pilot astronaut on this round the Moon trip before coming back to Earth for re-entry and landing.   While the Soyuz capsule that was always designed for a skip re-entry return from lunar missions, it was pointed out that no Soyuz spacecraft the similar Zond configuration had never actually achieved this feat.   “We have full confidence that they will be able to do the mission” said Tom Shelley, President of Space Adventures.

Lunar space travel is not the only planned capability that Space Adventures plans to exploit.  It has a deal with Boeing to use its CST-100 capsule for low Earth orbit missions as well which they assume will fly even if Boeing loses out in the NASA commercial crew service competition.

Interestingly, both Excalibur Almaz and Space Adventures noted that they did not yet have plans to actually land on the Moon though the former admitted that had asked the design firm Yuzhnoye to examine using a Blok-E stage for a landing system.  As such, it  maybe only a matter of time before space tourists can walk on the Moon.

After all the lunar excitement, suborbital space tourism seemed ‘run of the mill’ and that is before it has even started.  Officially Virgin Galactic plans to start making full powered flights of its SpaceShipTwo vehicle at the end of this year with commercial flights to follow about a year or so after that.  Each passenger has to $200,000 for a ticket. For those fretful about getting the wing locked after its “feathered re-entry” there was no joy after it was admitted that there was only one way back and hence extra redundancy is being packed into this mission critical part of the mission.  

As Virgin Galactic’s competitors XCOR and its Space Exploration Corporation partners are finalising their launch plans as they plan to fly the Lynx 2 design to 103km.   All passengers will now come under the Space Exploration banner as they pay their $95,000 fare.   The firm was at pains to explain that their view from the co-pilots seat would be very good given the amount of glazing there.   While Virgin’s concept uses and airdrooped design using a hybrid rocket, the XCOR Lynx uses a LOx/Kerosene bipropellant rocket engine.  

With respect to space ports, while Virgin Galactic’s is nearly complete base at Space Port America in New Mexico, XCOR noted its plans for its Curacuo (in the Caribbean) and Mojave space ports while Sweden pitched its Kiruna launch site emphasising its access to the Northern Lights.  With respect to suborbital space passengers, insurance for them is likely to be a version of the dangerous sport insurance class already available.  Meanwhile, the concept of passengers signing waivers of liability  under informed concent was questioned by Rolf Olaffson of Whilte & Case LLP as he noted that ITAR information restrictions might prevent certain non-US passengers from being truly informed.

One interesting question from the audience is whether a market would grow for privately owned spacecraft is much the same way as the very rich own private jets. 

One other interesting announcement – or rather a preliminary announcement, was that Virgin Galactic is likely to get involved in launching small orbitiing satellites using an expendable rocket in combination with its White Knight Two carrier aircraft acting as a “stage 0” for such missions.   The firm had previously shelved a similar plan.