Space Torism

Emerging Space Tourism : A Scientist’s View-Point

Travelling to the space may have immense technical and health related challenges for the astronauts / Cosmonauts. However, such trips have enormous glamorous impact for the world population. Hence, each one of them heading to space are viewed no less than the Heroes of the cinema. It becomes a dream of many people to travel to space.

Space Tourism has great attraction esp for the rich people the world over and Russian Roscosmos have partly cashed upon it in the past as shown in the table below. Since 2001, the lucrative Russian space tourism program has enabled many “private spaceflight participants” to make their space trips. They paid in excess of $20 million for flights aboard Russian Soyuz crafts, brokered by Virginia-based Space Adventures…the last tourist paid a reported $35 million for his trip. All those trips were to the Space Station and followed almost the same training protocol as for the other mission specialist cosmonauts… so as to perform some scientific tasks basically to justify their inclusion.

It is evident by the Russian commercial space tourism venture (shown in the table above) that there is substantial revenue generation from the space tourism. There are many prospective tourists willing to pay for such trips what could be considered as ‘costing fortunes’ for the most others. Most of these tourists would be keen to experience the thrills of space exposure. The ‘tourist space ventures’ could be aimed at much shortened periods, with minimum of indoctrination training. There come the various possibilities…of ‘sub-orbital’ flights of few minutes, of orbitting around the globe, of spending some time in a totally different habitat of Space-inns, Space-resorts, space Sheraton, ‘Antariksh-vaas’, ‘Udankhatola’ or any other name given to it.

The first, fully committed private US Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX) was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk with the goal of reducing space transportation costs, to enable colonization of Mars. They invested heavily on Falcon 9 reusable rocket and a spacecraft Dragon (cargo & crew) for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) in 2006, getting NASA funding for Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) to ISS. Later, additional funds were provided for its Human rating as their Space Shuttle was to be decommissioned in 2010. SpaceX fulfilled the commitments by sending NASA logistics supply to the ISS in 2012 and later, astronauts in his re-usable ’Falcon-9 & Dragon’ spacecraft in May 20. The present SpaceX orbital ventures are more of a shuttle service to the ISS. They too may later wish to have their own Commercial Space Station for commercial space tourism.

Earlier one way trip to the ISS used to take 2 days for docking that subsequently were reduced to over 5 hrs by the Russians. These long duration trips may not suit the space tourists in general, who may have their own short-duration aims and objectives of traveling to the space as elaborated later. Not many of them will be keen to spend months for training for becoming a space tourist.

Space Adventure/Tourism customers have some minimum requirements that any passenger willing to spend fortunes would mandate. On the other hand, the space agencies may competitively offer a better package / options of a near-guaranteed safe return, with one or more of the following experiences…

  • The experience of Microgravity…unhindered Free Floating …without any obstacle.
  • Being able to see the curvature of the Earth with its bluish Atmospheric cover.
  • Being able to see the Sunrise or Sunset which is totally different experience.
  • Viewing the changing perspectives of the Earth under the day and the night
  • Special occasions and celebrations in space…propose, marry, honeymoon and so on.
  • Situational demands of viewing the changing perspective of the Earth under Solar or Lunar Eclipse or any other celestial events.
  • Sufficient exposure time under microgravity for short scientific experiments.
  • Other innovative ideas will surely come-up for space recreational objectives in the future.

The great race to grab the imaginations and intent of the few rich in the name of “Space Tourism” is on. Two billionaires namely Richard Branson having founded his company ‘Virgin Galactic’ andJeff Bezos of ‘Blue Origin’ are ready with their respective spacecrafts to offer the commercial space tourism. The latter had planned his first commercial flight on 21 July much earlier from now but the former, hurriedly announced his maiden flight for 11 July 21 to 'earn a first' in the history books and kept his words too. The Virgin Galactic has the reusable spacecraft named Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Unity mounted within the dual wings of their aircraft Virgin Mother Ship (VMS) Eva. VSS Unity after release from VMS Eva at around 45-50 KFt AMSL is propelled by a rocket to the edge of the space. On the other hand, Blue Origin Spacecraft is fully reusable rocket propelled in 2-stages. The former is designed to go up to or below Karman’s line of 100 Km whereas the latter can go up to 150 Km or so above the Earth. These two offer the actual microgravity / space exposure for only few minutes.

There are some other players too in Commercial Space ventures. These include Boeing Company’s paid trips to the International Space Station (ISS) in their ‘CST-100’ Starliner spacecraft, which is yet to start operations. It may not be long before the Chinese and Russians too come-up with their own or joint plans for commercial space tourism. They already have the technologies for it.

On 11 July 21 M/S ‘Virgin Galactic’ tried to demonstrate that they offer a great prospect to adventure tourism to space. Its founder Richard Branson with another three of his employees were the passengers in the 22nd flight of VSS Unity. They were to travel as mission specialists (?) in the passengers’ compartment of the craft with much fanfare and global publicity. Their rocket-propelled spacecraft VSS Unity was released from under the wings of aircraft VMS Eva at 46393 ft AMSL, with forward speed of 389 Mi/hr. Within a second of separation, the VSS Unity rocket ignited to propel the Spacecraft.

Virgin Galactic Flight

The max speed touched 3.1 Mach at 125 Kft AMSL, 57 sec after the separation and then went in nose up attitude heading to the edge of the space. The rocket extinguished few seconds past 60 secs and the craft continued gaining altitude as the speed continued washing out. At 1’10” of separation, the passengers were asked to unstrap for experiencing microgravity in the coming seconds. Back flipping of the craft was carried out by the pilots at 1’33” at about 213 Kft AMSL with speed of 2.3 Mach, so as to enable the passengers view the Earth through the small windows provided at the sides and the ceiling. The flipping also meant that some amount of aerodynamic control must have been there. The max altitude achieved of an imaginary parabola was 2,82773 ft AMSL at a time 2’37” from separation, when
the speed had washed out to 1.1 Mach.

Hereafter, the free fall of the craft started till the so-called 're-entry' to the atmosphere was announced by the team at 3’40” at 200 KFt AMSL when all passengers were asked to return to their seats and strap-up. Thus an 'over 2 min' of microgravity was experienced when momentarily the passengers could be seen floating in the cramped-up cabin. The erect seats however, seemed an impediment in their free-float.

Under microgravity

It must have been their life-time experience endeavouring to the near space conditions. The first human sub-orbital flight is praiseworthy and has surely opened up new avenues in Space-Tourism'.However, the look on the faces of the four 'mission specialists' as they called themselves, having experienced the adventure, were not very great.

Could the passengers view the curvature of the earth from the ceiling altitudes? We don’t know. Once in the atmosphere, the craft was made to glide to the runway of the same base from where it took-off. It was a well piloted landing and the ground crew were in attendance within seconds.

All passengers were called as astronauts by the Virgin Galactic team…something that denigrates the status of the actual astronauts and Cosmonauts…their hard training, skills and efforts. All the crew either piloting their craft or travelled in the capacity of crew with desired levels of training and skills, to take-over the controls of even automated flights are at liberty to be called and designated astronauts / Cosmonauts. Even those having been trained and assigned the mission specialists with their given objectives deserve the designation. However, what do we call the passengers of such trips / flights? Do they deserve being designated as astronauts? If they do, then let the world brace-up for a new breed of astronauts / cosmonauts without the training or skills for the prestigious designation. Of course, the two crew of VSS Unity having piloted the sub-orbital flight, remained in obscurity. It must be clarified here that all those who made Roscosmos trips to the Space Station and followed almost the same training protocol as for the other mission specialists. Hence, they could legitimately be called cosmonauts /astronauts.

The second private commercial space venture, Blue Origin grabbed the world attention on 20 July 20 with their first human Sub-Orbital flight, in their reusable ‘New Shapard’ rocket launch that was to release the human capsule in to space and itself land back safely at a designated platform about 2 miles from the lift-off. The human capsule was to go above the Karman line and then descend safely to soft touch-down enabled by jet-firing of Nitrogen gas 6 ft above ground. It is a fully automated flight from launch to landing back of both the separated rocket and the human capsule.

The New Shepard was launched from outside Van Horn, Texas at Blue Origin facilities,with four passengers, one of whom had paid for his trip. It was a perfect launch, went almost vertically up. The max velocity reached was 3 Mach. The rocket burn-out completed at T+2’21” at 1,83 Kft AMSL and within few seconds, it separated. The Human capsule continued ascending without engine and entered ‘zero G’ at T+2’35” at ~230 KFt AMSL. The capsule continued ascending till T+4’03” to its peak altitude of ~351 KFt where its forward speed became zero and then started falling freely. The zero G period ended at approx. T+5’32” at the altitude of 225 Kft while re-entering the atmosphere. Thus a total of about 3 min of Zero G was experienced.

Engine switched-off
Zero-G starts
Max altitude, speed zero
Zero-G ends

The re-entry to the atmosphere was at approx 1880 MPH, 225 Kft, seemed uneventful, without any friction-fire. The drogue and main parachutes deployed at quick succession at T+8’21” and T+8’35” respectively at rather critically low altitudes of about 6.4 & 3.2 Kft AMSL. However, the module seemd to make a not-so-soft touchdown at about 14 MPH of vertical impact. The capsule remained stable, the 3 parachutes fell down on the sides with the riser cords attached to the capsule. Those crew aligned to capsule window aligned to the peremeter wall of the landing site must have had their heart-in-mouth descenting almost over it. However, they must have thanked the almighty from the disaster as the capsule under passive parachute descent appeared to have no vertical or horizontal control. It took several minutes before the ground crew could arrive at the touchdown spot.

Opening of Drogue & main parachutes
Touch down

‘Tourist viewership’ from the tall and wide windows in the New Shepard capsule were much helpful in appreciating the curvature of the Earth, the thin atmospheric blue cover around it as well as the pitch dark sky all around. The intensity of the Sunlight within the cabin in VSS Unity seemed to be worrisome. How much of the thrill and adventurism the passengers felt in the two different flights, are for them to answer. However, the company employees and their bosses will be the last to utter any word of inconvenience that they might have felt in those billion dollar ventures meant to attract the tourists. What was expressed in another article immediately after the Virgin Galactic trip, was echoed in Ms Wally Funk spoke in milder words after the flight…that it was a bit cramped up space for appreciating free floating under zero G.

Free-floating, bit cramped-up

Surely, if the crew of 4 felt a bit cramped-up for free-float, full capacity of 6 tourists, having paid-up fortunes, surely may be more demanding and less accommodative. A mere reclining / folding options to the seats could increase the free space for free-floating. In VSS Unity, a larger window pane could be more attractive. Hence, some design review may be beneficial to attract the tourists with better satisfying experience of those few precious moments. A comparative look at the two agencies offering the space tourism is provided in the table below:-

Comparison of the two

There seem to be some minor safety concerns as well. Travelling above atmospheric envelope in the normal overalls/outfits/casuals, without space-suit, without personal Life Support System is dangerous. Meteoroids pose great dangers at those altitudes and any impact can damage the craft with ensuing atmospheric loss, that could be fatal to all passengers and even to the crew without full pressure clothing. An unexpected failure of the cabin pressure relief valve could be catastrophic. Reverse oxygenation takes place to suck out the oxygen from pulmonary blood and the Time of Useful Consciousness is barely 7 seconds before any life-saving actions could be taken. Incapacitation and death becomes a real possibility for all occupants. Hence, everyone must have a space suit or full pressure garment for unexpected emergencies, that can sustain life for the crucial few minutes while rapid descent be commenced. It is believed that both agencies had earlier planned for providing space suit for the passengers but changed their mind subsequently considering the constraints that it may pose on the tourists. It is however, a necessity to save life under emergency loss of pressurisation.

The second issue is the radiation of the direct sunlight which is very intense above the atmosphere. In VSS Unity 22 flight, it appeared an intense Sunlight. Above atmosphere Sunlight is equally strong whether it is the morning, afternoon or evening. Astronauts have sustained burns of the exposed parts due to direct Sun.

It is expected that all spacecraft designs must have undergone the critical failure analysis to safeguard the lives and health of the space tourists. These failures can vary anything…from the rocket not igniting, its nozzle bursts…of pressurisation loss…of micrometeorite impacts and so on.

Any space venture does have some inherent risks but certainly not at the cost of someone’s life. Any Space Tourist will have some minimum expectations from the flights as mentioned above in this article. The companies offering Space Tourism at the prohibitive costs amounting fortunes in the present times, must be safe and fulfilling their expectations. Whether ‘Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin’ fulfil all those objectives, only they and their passengers will decide. This article only aims at bringing out a third party, a scientist’s view-point. It is a great beginning for space tourism.

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