Virgin Galactic Space Adventure

The Race for Commercial Adventure Space Tourism

The great race to grab the rich in the name of “Adventure Space Tourism” is on. Two billionaires namely Richard Branson having founded his company ‘Virgin Galactic’ and Jeff Bezos of ‘Blue Origin’ are ready with their respective spacecrafts to offer the commercial space adventures. The latter had planned his first commercial flight on 21 July much earlirt but the former hurriedly announced his maiden flight with passengers for 11 July 21 to 'earn a first' in the history book and kept his words too. The Virgin Galactic has the spacecraft named Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Unity mounted within the dual wings of their huge aircraft Virgin Mother Ship (VMS) Eva. VSS Unity is propelled by a rocket after its release from VMS Eva at around 45-50 KFt AMSL. On the other hand, Blue Origin Spacecraft is fully 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 adventure trips lasting a few hours but actual microgravity / space exposure being only few minutes.
There are some other players in Commercial Space ventures too. These include SpaceX and Boeing Company’s paid trips to the International Space Station (ISS) with their ‘Crew Dragon’ and ‘CST-100’ Starliner spacecraft. The former has already commenced the trips for NASA and the latter is yet to start their operations. It may not be long before the Chinese and Russians too come-up with their plans for commercial space adventures. These trips may last for days…anything from 3-7 days or so.

Commercial Spacecraft

Space Adventure customers have some minimum requirements that any passenger willing to spend fortunes, will be expecting to get in return…

  • Near guaranteed safe return from the flight.
  • The experience of Microgravity…unhindered Free Floating …without any obstacle.
  • Have sufficient exposure time under microgravity if any scientific experiment has to be carried out.
  • Being able to see the Sunrise or Sunset.
  • Being able to see the curvature of the Earth with its bluish Atmospheric cover.
  • If possible, make a complete round of our planet so as to view its changing perspectives under the day and the night…
  • There could be situational demands of viewing or carrying out scientific experiments under the changing perspective of the Solar or Luner Eclipse.

On 11 July 21 M/S ‘Virgin Galactic’ tried to demonstrate to the world that they offer a great prospect to adventure tourism to space. The casually dressed Richard Branson and another three of his employees in normal aircrew overalls were observed travelling as mission specialists in the passengers’ compartment. The event was telecast live.

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, with slight nose-up attitude to facilitate smooth separation at the designated location.

Sub-Orbital Flight

Within a second of separation, the VSS Unity rocket ignited to propel the Spacecraft. The max speed touched 3.1 Mach at 125 Kft at 57 sec of the separation time and then went in nose up attitude. 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 time, the passengers were asked to unstrap themselves for experiencing microgravity in the coming seconds. Back flipping of the craft was carried out 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 ceiling. The flipping also meant that some amount of aerodynamic control must have been there. The max altitude achieved of an imaginary parabola was 2,82652 ft AMSL at a time 2’42” 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 altitude when all passengers were asked to return back to their seats and strap-up. Thus an 'over 2 min' of microgravity was experienced when a momentary glimpse of the passengers could be seen. The erect seats seemed to be impediments to free-floating and hampering them in doing so. Ms Sirisha was seen strapping herself to the seat at 3’28”.

Microgravity and afterwards

It must have been their life-time experience endeavouring to the near space conditions. The first human sub-orbital flight too 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.

As mentioned above, there seemed to be obstructions and hurdles in their free-floating due to the erect seats as well as the lower craft ceiling heights. It also seemed to be an unstable craft during the weightlessness as free-floating passengers seemed to be a little shaky & jerky under a very poor and fractured video. Could the passengers view the curvature of the earth from the ceiling altitude of the flight? We don’t know. The sunlight from the windows seemed very intense…capable of causing sunburn of the exposed skin. UV could have been filtered out by the window Perspex sheets but the IR component? We don’t know.

There appears to be some safety concerns as well. Travelling above atmospheric envelope in the normal overalls, without full pressure garment, without personal Life Support System is dangerous. Meteoroids pose danger at these 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. Hence, everyone must have a full/partial pressure garment for unexpected emergencies, that can sustain life for the crucial few minutes while rapid descent be commenced. The second issue is the direct sunlight which is very intense above the atmosphere. In Unity 22 flight, Ms Sirisha surely appeared exposed to intense Sunlight. Above atmosphere Sunlight is equally strong whether it is the morning, afternoon or evening. Astronauts have sustained burns of the face if exposed to direct Sun under Extra-Vehicular Activities (EVAs). It is expected that the spacecraft Unity 2 design must have undergone the critical failure analysis to safeguard the lives of the crew and passengers. These failures can vary anything of those incl the rocket not igniting, its nozzle bursts…of pressurisation loss…of micrometeorite impacts and so on.

Any Adventure activity does have some inherent risks but certainly not at the cost of anyone’s life. Any Space Tourist will have some minimum expectations as mentioned above in the article. The companies offering Space Adventure at the prohibitive costs equivalent to fortunes in the present times, must be safe and fulfilling their expectations. Whether Virgin Galactic fulfils all those obligations, only they and their passengers will decide. This article only aims at bringing out a third party view point.

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