Posted: 5:52 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17, 2012

Passenger space flight aircraft being developed with little regulation

Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic

MOJAVE, Calif. —

While it takes years or even decades to develop new passenger jets, the government is taking a hands off approach when it comes making sure the spacecraft being designed for passenger flight are safe.

Virgin Atlantic airliners and Virgin America jumbo jets are visible at SFO any day of the week.

But Virgin Galactic, a still unrealized commerical venture into space, begins at Mojave Airport in the high desert of California. The Mojave Desert is the holy high temple of the "right stuff," the place where humankind first broke the sound barrier, the X-15 became the first real rocket powered manned spaceship and the space shuttle repeatedly landed.

Manned spaceflight is getting ever closer to going commercial.

"We expect to see some test flights as early as this year and some of the companies are planning to be in formal operations as early as next year, so we're really quite close to seeing a lot of activity in that area," said Federal Aviation Administration's Commerical Space Administrator George Nield.

The only reason we're as close as we are to passengers in space is because eight years ago, the U.S.Government took a hands off approach, letting commercial space entrepreneurs develop thier craft without regulation.

That freed up the thinking of people at the Mojave Aiport. These are intensely entrepreneurial men and women who simply want to be allowed to do what they do best. They like to call Mojave the "Silicon Valley" for new space.

Virgin Galactic looks to be first to take tourists into space. Enrico Palermo, an executive with the spacecraft building arm of Virgin Galactic called the Spaceship Company, told KTVU his company closing on its objective.

"We are certainly a long way through its testing program of its vehicles the White Knight Two and Space Ship Two," said Palermo. "That's really an example of things that are happening across the industry."

For $200,000 a ticket, Virgin's Spaceship Two will carry six tourists to an altitude of 360,000 feet or 68 miles. That is "space' for all intents and purposes. But with commercial flights coming in as little as two years, how can a spacecraft be certified for tourists in such a short time?

Commercial airliners such as Boeings and Airbuses take many years to certify. The answer comes from Stuart Witt the CEO of Mojave Air & Spaceport.

"The FAA and Congress has said 'We're not going to certify these craft for human space flight. We're going to achieve an equivalent level of safety,'" said Witt.

"There's rules that these vehicles are licensed to operate under and we need to meet those rules," adds Palermo.

By order of Congress, the FAA requires space lauch companies to assure the safety of all people and property on the ground. For space tourists, Congress set a different standard.

"They've asked us to use something called 'informed consent,' where launch operators are going to have to thoroughly brief their customers on all hazards, all risks," said Nield.

"Part of our job is to inform, as part of the FAA process, our customers of the risks," said Virgin Galactic's Palermo.

Nonetheless, nearly 500 passengers have already signed up. With that and contracts to carry scientific and industrial research packages into space, business is so good, Virgin's Spaceship Company is building a fleet, as are other companies.

"We've build this $8 million, 68,000 square foot facility here," said Palermo. "There are two facilites, bigger than that, being built a quarter mile down the road."

Those buildings will house Stratolaunch, brain child of Microsoft billionarie Paul Allen, whose soon-to-be-built, largest aircraft ever "mothership" will carry numerous payloads, human and cargo, for air launch into space.

Other companies from X-cor to Masten, Space Adventures to Space-X and Blue Origin to Rockethip Tours and others, here and abroad, all are racing to join the new space race. Passenger confidence in space tourism will blossom once prices decline and a solid safety record better than that achieved by the 550 government sponsored human space flights is built.

"We've go to do exponentially better than that in space travel to start achieving numbers that the travelling public expects from our industry," explained Witt.

"Certainly in the next 5 to 10 years, we're gonna see a lot of activity with hundreds of flights every year and a lot more people getting to experience spaceflight individually," FAA Commerical Space Administrator Nield added.

Eventually, this sub-orbital flying will take place from one-point to another, slashing flight times from city to city.

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