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Boarding the Spaceplane

During the administration of President Ronald Reagan, senior government officials began to discuss the possibility of developing an “Orient Express,” a hybrid air and spaceplane that could carry ordinary people between New York City and Tokyo in about one hour. How is this possible? Actually, the concept is quite simple: Develop an aerospace plane that can take off like a conventional jetliner from an ordinary runway. Flying supersonic, it reaches an altitude of 45,000-50,000 feet, where the pilots start scramjet engines, a jet technology that has the potential to push jetcraft to hypersonic speeds. The spaceplane rises to the edge of space and darts to the opposite side of the globe, where the process is reversed and the vehicle lands like a conventional airplane. It never reaches orbit, but technically it flies in space. The experience is similar to orbital flight, except for the shorter time.

The spaceplane concept has long been a staple of dreams of spaceflight. Seemingly, it holds enormous promise and could become reality in the twenty-first century. Spaceplanes promise passengers an opportunity to travel around the globe with greater speed and ease than any jetliners provide today.

The cost of such flights will be high, without question. New technologies would be necessary to build passenger spaceplanes and sell tickets for about $100,000 per seat. Does a market sufficiently robust exist to support this effort? Market studies suggest that at least 100,000 passengers a year might fly spaceplanes at the price noted here. That is a $10 billion per year business. It could grow in size and become less expensive as technology progresses.

The most attractive part of spaceplane travel at first will be its novelty. Like flying on the Concorde between Europe and New York City, it could not sustain itself solely as a practical means of transportation. Instead, bragging rights for having flown at hypersonic speeds would sustain much of the effort early on—that and the most exciting part of the flight, weightlessness. As the spaceplane travels at the edge of the atmosphere, passengers would experience about twenty minutes of free-fall. Floating within the cabin, they could peer out of ports into the blackness of space and the blue-green Earth below. Given the technical definition of the term, they would qualify as astronauts—persons engaged in spaceflight.

Passenger service of this sort offers a powerful incentive for the financing of commercial space ventures. No longer dependent on government largesse, space entrepreneurs might be able to raise funds for human spaceflight through the private sector. This could be a critical step in opening the space frontier to ordinary people, thus helping to realize the promise that anyone can fly (with enough money).

We may be closer to a spaceplane than most realize at present. Perhaps the private sector efforts of SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, Virgin Galactic, Sierra Nevada, and others will bear fruit in this arena. The successes thus far are positive signs, but I urge caution in trumpeting this as THE answer for the future. Although the trajectory is positive, there is still a long road to hoe before achieving an operational system. Likewise, the U.S. Air Force’s recent success with a modified X-37B reusable orbital vehicle suggests that spaceplanes may soon be a reality.

Interestingly, beyond technology R&D at NASA the space agency may well have to look beyond its personnel and its various centers for the next human space access system. President Obama’s decision to rely on private sector efforts to develop next generation human space access capabilities was a bold, controversial initiative. However it turns out, it represents a path that harkens back to an earlier model in which NASA had more equal partnerships with other organizations to accomplish its mandate. I am heartened by recent developments in this arena. With sufficient diligence and resources, of course, virtually anything humans can imagine in spaceflight may be achieved.

Might we yet be able to board the spaceplane in our lifetimes?

- Roger D. Launius, Ph. D.
Associate Director for Collections and Curatorial Affairs
National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution