For many many people space tourism and even colonisation are attractive ideas. But in order for these to start we need vehicles that will take us to orbit and bring us back.

Current space vehicles clearly cannot. Only the Space Shuttle survives past one use, and that's only if you ignore the various parts that fall off (intentionally!) on the way up.

You could be forgiven for thinking that space is therefore an impossibly expensive place to get to. But this need not be the case. Launch to orbit requires accelerating to Mach 26, and so it uses a lot of propellant - about 10 tons per passenger. But there's no technical reason why reusable launch vehicles couldn't come to be operated routinely, just like aircraft. The only reason why this hasn't been done yet is that launch vehicle development has been left to government space agencies. And they have had neither the priority nor the will to achieve it - they don't use even 2% of their budgets (of $25 billion per year) to study the design of launch vehicles suitable for passenger service!

So it may well turn out to be private enterprise that is the solution - plenty of ideas for reusable launch vehicles exist, and with incentives like the X-Prize, there's going to be fierce competition to see who can be first.

Space Vehicles presents some of the ideas that could change the meaning of "Space" from being a remote place where government staff carry out "missions" to being a weekend destination, just a few minutes' flight away.

29 July 2012
Added "Space Debris and Its Mitigation" to the archive.
16 July 2012
Space Future has been on something of a hiatus of late. With the concept of Space Tourism steadily increasing in acceptance, and the advances of commercial space, much of our purpose could be said to be achieved. But this industry is still nascent, and there's much to do. this space.
9 December 2010
Updated "What the Growth of a Space Tourism Industry Could Contribute to Employment, Economic Growth, Environmental Protection, Education, Culture and World Peace" to the 2009 revision.
7 December 2008
"What the Growth of a Space Tourism Industry Could Contribute to Employment, Economic Growth, Environmental Protection, Education, Culture and World Peace" is now the top entry on Space Future's Key Documents list.
30 November 2008
Added Lynx to the Vehicle Designs page.
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Rockets versus Planes
Everyone's seen pictures of rockets taking off - both real ones and imaginary ones. And everyone's seen pictures of spaceplanes taking off - but they're all imaginary - because they're impossible! (or at least, be prepared for a long wait). The basic problem for designers of reusable space vehicles is achieving the velocity needed to reach orbit without carrying so much fuel that the vehicle is either too heavy to get there or unable to carry anything other than fuel. So the answer is either to make the vehicle very light, or to find a way around having to carry all that fuel.
There's more than one way to do it

The problem with planes is that wings contain very little fuel, but they have a big surface area, so they're heavy. Their advantage is that they can generate lift in the atmosphere so that a launch vehicle uses much less propellant in the first part of its trajectory. But that isn't enough of an advantage to overcome their weight problem - so HTOL (Horizontal Take-Off and Landing) SSTO (Single Stage To Orbit) is impossible with existing or near-term materials and propulsion technology.

However, HTOL is possible with a little help: various kinds of assisted-launch HTOLs are possible - like a rocket-powered launch-sled or dropping off from a balloon at high altitude. Unfortunately these are not at all convenient for commercial operations!

Alternatively, TSTO (Two Stage To Orbit) or 2STO, and also so-called 1.5STO designs are possible, and may well become attractive systems. Good examples of these are the Spacecab/Spacebus 2STO design which has a first stage like a large Concorde that takes off using existing jets and then uses existing rockets to climb to high altitude (about 40 km) where it releases the upper stage already almost outside the atmosphere. The upper stage or orbiter is like a smaller, blunt (good for re-entry) first stage, using existing rockets to get to orbit, and then small jet engines for landing.

1.5STO is the approach by the Black Horse and Pioneer Rocketplane team. A vehicle looking rather like the Spacebus upper stage takes off from a runway with almost empty propellant tanks. Then it refuels in mid-air, using technology that's been used for decades by Air Forces. It thereby gets to "launch" fully fuelled at high altitude, neatly getting round the impossibility of HTOL SSTO.

Another ingenious 1.5STO is the approach taken by Kelly Space Technology. Their winged spaceplane will take off horizontally, fully fuelled but unpowered, towed behind another aircraft. In this way they too can get to high altitude before they have to use any of their propellants. Neat - we wish them luck!


The advantage of VTOL compated to HTOL is that it's structurally simple - or can be if you design it right. Circularly symmetric (forget all the complexities of wings!), VTOLs are a "flying propellant tank", a bullet shape that is inherently stable on reentry -- like the early space "capsules". VTOL is known to be possible with 30-year old technology. The Kankoh-Maru is one currently active VTOL that typifies this kind of vehicle; the DC-X and Roton, both now defunct, are others.

3 - The Duckbilled Platypus option

Strictly speaking there's also VTOHL (Vertical Take-Off, Horizontal Landing), of which the most obvious example is the Space Shuttle. However, it's not a good design as it has a number of fundamental problems.

The key difficulty of SSTO design is to build a light vehicle, and so the structure must be as efficient as possible. In a VTOL vehicle the loads are basically along the vehicle from bottom to top. In a HTOL vehicle they're mainly across the vehicle like an aeroplane. But a VTOHL has to support stresses both along and across the vehicle - so it's heavier. Secondly, once a VTOHL vehicle has taken off, there's a period of time during which it can't easily recover from a failure. This is contrary to the fundamental idea of aviation safety, namely the need for "continuous intact abort". At any given moment time it must be possible to save the vehicle and passengers in the event of an accident or systems failure. The Challenger disaster was a vivid demonstration of this problem of VTOHLs, and they're unlikely ever to be satisfactory for transporting people or to be able to pass certification for passenger-carrying. But convince us if you can!

Another problem with VTOHL is that while the wings help the vehicle on re-entry, they are effectively dead weight on the way up. In an HTOL, wings allow you to use aerodynamic lift at take-off, so you don't need to use so much thrust and propellant -- the thrust of a VTOL rocket's engines is typically 1.4 times its mass, while the thrust of an airliners' engines is only about 1/4 of it's mass - big saving!. So to build wings and just carry them vertically to orbit is shooting yourself in the foot! Finally, so much fuel is needed just to get up that it's very hard to keep any in reserve for the return trip, resulting in an unpowered high-speed landing. Airliners can rev their engines at any time and "go round again" if there's a problem before landing - but the space shuttle would be destroyed. Even Chuck Yeager didn't like doing "dead-stick" landings in a fighter plane, because of this risk.

4 - The Rest of the Field

In addition to the above, there have also been proposals for two stage vertical launch vehicles, and even a single-stage-to-orbit space station that launches itself!

In the Blue Corner...

Now, there are dedicated, professional, convincing (even noisy!) supporters of both HTOL and VTOL approaches, and both are certainly possible - in the right configurations. Rather than take sides, Space Future would like to see both getting funded and being built and put into operation. The competition between them will be just great to watch, and it'll help to improve the designs, drive their costs down, and speed things along nicely!

The War's Over

Unfortunately the space industry suffers from the problem of having been a government activity for decades during the "cold war". As a result there are numerous research establishments with expensive equipment in many countries which these institutions want to use, because it's embarrassing to them to admit they're a waste. So they're always coming up with ways of spending money on anything except passenger launch vehicles.

Projects working on scramjet (supersonic combustion ramjet) engines are a good example of this. They sound great, taking oxygen from the air instead of carrying it with you -- but they're essentially pointless technology, at least for civilian use. They'll certainly never be used in any commercial vehicle. Think about it - Supersonic Combustion Ramjet means that it can't operate below supersonic speeds. So it needs another engine to take off with. And it's an air-breathing engine, so it can't operate in space either! So you need rockets on board. So you need 3 different propulsion systems -- heavy and complicated!

Worse, experiments have shown that while originally planned to go to Mach 26 or Mach 20, scramjets can't work much above about Mach 11. And to use them a launch vehicle has to cruise in the atmosphere at that speed -- rather like standing in front of a welding torch -- instead of just getting out of the atmosphere as quick as possible. But there are expensive hypersonic wind-tunnels which "have to be used", and so instead of trying to make a launch vehicle that might actually make money (what a thought!), government institutions keep thinking up plans why they should continue this work instead.

Well, if these organizations want to waste taxpayers' money, what's new? "Who cares?" you might ask. What must not be allowed is for these organizations to block the start of the true space age by justifing projects like this with the ludicrous claim that "This is the way to open the space frontier" - it isn't. The way to open the space frontier is to build passenger vehicles with existing technology and to start passenger services. It's as simple as that.

Keep it Simple, Stupid

Henry Ford didn't wait for the V-8 engine to be developed before he started selling cars! He made them with the engines he could make at the time, and he got started! And then with the money he earned he improved his products step by step. It's going to be the same with space travel. It's going to start with what's available - not with what might be developed decades from now, if enough billions of taxpayers' money is used (and probably not even then, as X-33 has ably demonstrated).

And so that means making and operating VTOL SSTO vehicles, and 2STO/1.5STO HTOL vehicles. So we're looking forward to seeing vigorous competition between different models of these different vehicles, and to seeing which companies and which countries play a significant role in humans' approaching space future - and to seeing which ones keep their heads in the sand, and their people in the dark, until the race is lost!

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