History is being made on the final frontier. Space tourism is becoming a reality, competitors are preparing their lunar rovers, and private companies are expanding into space.
People have paid $30 million to get a ride into space. That changes next year. The new ticket price is $200,000, and Virgin Galactic is the company selling tickets. The company’s sole purpose is to send tourists to space and back. Flights begin next year.
Before flying, Virgin Galactic patrons train for two days to prepare for high g-forces and weightlessness. Leaving from Spaceport America in New Mexico, a special plane, WhiteKnightTwo, carries SpaceShipTwo to 50,000 feet. There the pilots disengage SpaceShipTwo and fire its hybrid-fuel engine, launching it into space. SpaceShipTwo reenters using a unique feathered wing method. The pilots fold up its wings and it falls into a slow spiral pattern back into the atmosphere where the pilots fold down its wings and glide it to the Spaceport runway.
Six passengers and two pilots will board the weekly space flights. Over 350 people have paid to be Virgin Galactic’s first astronauts to see earth like few have. And somersault in space.
Burt Rutan, the first person to privately design, develop, and send a spacecraft beyond the edge of space, won the Ansari X Prize in 2004 after two consecutive flights. Then, Virgin and Rutan created Virgin Galactic. They expanded Rutan’s winning SpaceShipOne design into SpaceShipTwo.
The X Prize Foundation seeks to break another barrier, going to the moon. The Google Lunar X Prize challenges the 29 international teams competing, to design, build and send a rover to the moon. Getting to the moon isn’t the only challenge. The rover must take high-definition photos, high-definition video, and travel 500 meters on the lunar surface to win the $20 million grand prize and a place in history.
After NASA’s rover explores the moon in 2013, the first-place prize drops to $15 million until the competition ends in December 2015. Completing objectives like finding and filming an Apollo Lander, and surviving a frigid, 2 week lunar night wins the team up to $4 million more. The second successful team wins $5 million. NASA plans to buy mission data from prize-winning teams.
ARCA, a Romanian team, plans to launch its rover using a high-altitude balloon and have successfully tested their launch system. Another team, Astrobiotic, an off-shoot of Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics program, plans to launch using a Falcon 9 rocket built by the commercial rocket company, SpaceX.
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, SpaceX, is paving the way for commercial rocketry with the world’s cheapest, most reliable rocket. SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket in December that carried an empty module into orbit and the module safely splashed down; a first for a private company.
SpaceX starts delivering payloads to the International Space Station this year. The SpaceX module, Dragon, is designed to carry astronauts and they hope to do so now that the Space Shuttle is flying its last mission.