It’s a transformational time for space travel.

In 2004, Paul G. Allen, one of the richest men in the world, teamed up with Burt Rutan, a truly gifted aerospace engineer, to bring us the first private sub-orbital spaceplane SpaceShipOne.

A fully reusable spacecraft, SpaceShipOne introduced a mother ship high-altitude launch system, carbon composite construction, hybrid rocket system and ingenious winged feathering technique for atmosphere re-entry that has revolutionised conceptions of space travel and significantly driven down costs.

Virgin Galactic soon joined in on the action, teaming up with Rutan and his company, Scaled Composites, to build SpaceShipTwo and mother ships White Knight One and White Knight Two. Test flights have been successful and Virgin Galactic is set to commence regular sub-orbital space flights to paying space tourists from as early as 2013.

Virgin Galactic

But that’s not all.

It is generally agreed among experts that the key to making space travel affordable is the construction of reusable launch vehicles capable of entering space. And all the signs are there to suggest that this is soon to be achieved.

At a press conference in Seattle, in December 2011, Paul G. Allen announced that he had reunited with Burt Rutan to take private space travel to the next level. Their new outfit, Stratolaunch Systems, an assemblage of three of the world’s most innovative space technology companies, is now designing and constructing a safe, cost-effective, flexible and re-usable air-launch system capable of repeatedly delivering payload spacecraft, occupied by cargo or paying passengers, out of the atmosphere and into an orbit in space.

“Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering an innovative solution that will revolutionize space travel,” said Allen. “We are at the dawn of radical change in the space-launch industry.”

And Stratolaunch Systems has all the funding, technology and know-how to make it happen. The company profiles of its team alone, enough to make any space geek dribble:

Scaled Composites

Founded and headed by legendary aerospace engineer, Burt Rutan, designer of SpaceShipOne, SpaceShipTwo and their respective mother ships, Scaled Composites has been at the forefront of innovative aircraft and spaceship design for decades.

SpaceX

The world’s leading space transport company, SpaceX has pushed the boundaries of space technology with its Falcon launch vehicles and Dragon spacecraft.

Dragon is a fully reusable spacecraft and the company has been working for some time on designs for making its Falcon launch vehicles the first fully reusable launch vehicles in the world.

Currently, SpaceX launch vehicles cost 30-50 percent of those of their competitors and the company made history in May 2012 when it became the first private company to send a cargo payload on its Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station.

Dynetics

A world leader in aerospace engineering, Dynetics is an engineering, applied science and information technology company whose primary customers include NASA, the US Department of Defense and the United States Intelligence Community.

Using a design similar to that to SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo, the Stratolaunch system will consist of a launch aircraft, built by Scaled Composites, weighing in it at 1.2 million pounds, with a wingspan of 380 feet (the length of a football field) that will carry a multi-stage booster and payload to a high-altitude launch. The 120 feet long booster, designed and built by SpaceX, will weigh a hefty 490,000 pounds. Sceptics doubt that launch aircraft will manage, but Dynetics is on the job, presently designing a sophisticated mating and integration system capable of lightening the load.

The booster, based on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, will be released at 30,000 feet. A first stage burn will then hurtle it out of the atmosphere before second stage ignition launches it into space. Here the payload spacecraft will separate from the second stage booster, fire its engines and continue on its way.

Flight-testing is expected to begin in 2016.

“We believe this technology has the potential to someday make spaceflight routine by removing many of the constraints associated with ground launched rockets,” said Mike Griffin, Stratolaunch board member and former NASA administrator, at the press conference last year.

And we agree.

Stratolaunch hasn’t as yet presented designs for re-entry, the return from orbit being significantly more difficult than returning from suborbital flight. But we have full faith that Rutan will soon devise an elegant solution.  And SpaceX, we believe, is on the cusp of designing its next generation fully re-usable Falcon launch vehicles. When they do, the price of space travel will begin its descent. Regular flights to and from orbiting space hotels and space stations will be the norm and ‘space only’ craft, free from the constraints of Earth’s gravity and atmosphere (most probably constructed in space), will ferry passengers from them to the Moon, like cruise ships carrying passengers from New York to Southampton.

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