Since the dawn of time, man has wondered about what lies beyond the edge of the earth's atmosphere. The past century has given us an even deeper interest, sparking our fascination from the first manned space mission to orbit the earth to Neil Armstrong's famous moon landing in 1969. But all of this has left normal, hardworking people in the lurch when it comes to space exploration. Over the years, only 551 people have left earth's atmosphere and traveled through space. Shouldn't it be your turn?
As it turns out, several companies, both private aerospace ventures and government contracts, have been working on commercial space flight. This would mean regular people (with a huge budget, as of now) would be able to travel beyond the earth and, perhaps someday, visit other planets. This is the first step in space travel and an exciting one at that. Some of the entrepreneurial companies have partnered with NASA, including Boeing and Blue Origin, while others like Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is more of a tourist's "space taxi" ride into orbit. Let's take a look at what is underway so far.
Richard Branson's space travel project was established with the mission to "open space to the rest of us," making it an efficient, open, and safe way to become an astronaut without the selection process and rigorous training of a legitimate space exploration institution like NASA. As of now, Virgin Galactic has announced their two pronged launch process utilizing newer air launch technology. Those traveling on board will be strapped into the SpaceShipTwo vessel and carried to an altitude of roughly 50,000 feet at which point the SpaceShipTwo will detach and launch using its hybrid rocket motor. The process is safe and efficient, not using cryogenic tanks and liquid rocket fuels, making for safe quick engine shut down which would not be safe in other rocket vehicles.
The SpaceShipTwo is the only spacecraft in history built to maximize passenger enjoyment and comfort and features twelve large windows through which you can see space, the moon, and earth as you float in orbit. The cabin is large enough to fit eight people and has room enough for passengers to experience the weightlessness of space. Reentry is also made safe as the vehicle mimics the performance of a capsule and also a winged vehicle when necessary, making for a smoother entry and more enjoyable ride for the passengers. The entire mission will consist of exiting the earth's atmosphere, enjoying zero gravity for several minutes as you view space, and then reentry to earth's surface. The SpaceShipTwo is testing its second spacecraft this year and will soon announce the date of its first projected flight.
Like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin is a civilian's opportunity to enjoy space travel like an astronaut. Blue Origin is also the only space flight mission to travel 100 kilometers above the earth, traveling beyond the Kármán Line, an imaginary line separating earth's atmosphere from outer space. Blue Origin's New Shepard capsule is revolutionary with the largest windows in space flight history, measuring a stunning 42.7 inches tall and surround a full one third of the capsule for supreme views of space.
The mission for the capsule's six passengers begins two days before launch when they arrive in West Texas for training and preparation. The day of, passengers will board the New Shepard and experience a traditional vertical launch, feeling 3 Gs of force in under 150 seconds as the rocket propels into space. As they enter space, the booster will disengage from the capsule and return to earth autonomously and the passengers will experience zero gravity and all encompassing views. When ready for reentry, the capsule will autonomously reenter the atmosphere at speeds up to 5 Gs and parachutes will deploy to make for safe, soft landings. After the flight, each passenger will receive video and pictures from the flight along with mementos.
Out of Boeing's Defense, Space, and Security aerospace company comes the Crew Space Transportation (CST-100) project, recently picked up by NASA. The project is one of the few working to become a privatized "space taxi" ushering astronauts, civilians, and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and the Bigelow station, still under the planning phase. The Commercial Crew Transportation System is currently underway in partnership with NASA and Boeing hopes to unveil their first flights to space in 2017.
The flights, as of now, are planned to take cargo and passengers from earth to the ISS, mainly. Both astronauts and civilians would have the chance to visit space under Boeing/NASA authority, control, and safety. On board, the CST-100 will feature internet access for ready communication with the control center, on board entertainment, and tablet accessible manuals to cut down on bulky paper manuals. The launch will generally take off from the Atlas V rocket although the CST-100 is an agnostic module, meaning it can and will launch from other rockets.
Admittedly the least validated of the space flight project, the Mars One mission looks to put a working civilian colony on Mars by 2027. Though it is heavily disputed, many look forward to participating in the one-way mission to colonize the red planet.
The Mars One project is an apolitical non-profit organization based in the Netherlands working to bring about, as I stated, the first Mars colony. The first unmanned missions to Mars is scheduled for 2020 while the first crewed missions are set for 2026 with subsequent missions leaving every 26 months. These are one way tickets, mind you, and missions are manned by common civilians, not just by trained astronauts. To be part of the mission, one must go through a rigorous application, selection, and then training process to be officially chosen.
Many scientists from around the world have disputed the actuality of creating a manned colony on Mars. Many say it can't be done with today's technology but the Mars One organization believes it can. They have stated that no new technology is needed to make this a reality, simply time, money, and development are required to make this mission as safe and successful as possible. The equipment for the mission is being developed by notable aerospace companies chosen by the Mars One foundation. As of now, the Mars colony outposts are still conceptual and are being tested at training facilities here on earth.