Colby Cosh on Richard Branson’s suborbital dreams:
Here, with talk of satellites and zero-G research, Branson seems to be cynically availing himself of the public’s confusion between “going into space” and “going into orbit”. It is a bit like confusing a walk around the block with an ascent of K2. SpaceShipTwo is a suborbital system designed to reach an altitude just above 100 km, and thus barely breach the arbitrary technical line between the atmosphere and space-in other words, to repeat, with a passenger load, what SpaceShipOne already did in 2004. This will be no mean feat, but as Mark Wade’s authoritative Encyclopedia Astronautica observes, “Orbital flight to space is a whole different order of magnitude than suborbital tosses. To reach 100 km altitude typically requires a vertical cut-off velocity of 1100 m/s at 40 km altitude. To reach orbit requires a cut-off velocity of 7800 m/s at 185 km altitude—over…7 times the cut-off velocity, and 20 times the energy.”
The wealthy buyers who have already lined up to ride SpaceShipTwo will be in free fall only at the very peak of the winged capsule’s trajectory, and as a microgravity research platform it will be about as much use as the cardboard box your kid turned into the Millennium Falcon with his crayons. Branson has the vague plans to design a SpaceShipThree capable of orbital flight, but the relatively humble materials and fuels he is using for SpaceShipTwo won’t cut the mustard.
If it’s possible to get ordinary civilians into orbit through sheer marketing ability, Branson is the man to bet on. What the general public may not know is that other private commercial enterprises are currently tackling the challenge of manned orbital flight, and could conceivably one day put tourists into low earth orbit at relatively sensible prices..