Mars One is planning a permanent human settlement on Mars within ten years, and plans to use a unique astronaut selection process open to the public. (credit: Mars One/Bryan Versteeg)
Mars One, the private venture with the audacious goal of sending humans to Mars—permanently—as early as 2023 made a splash earlier this week when it announced that more than 78,000 people had applied for its “astronaut selection program” just two weeks after starting to accept applications. The application process, revealed by the company on April 22, includes paying a registration fee that varies by nation ($38 in the US) as well as providing, as Mars One explained, “personal information about the applicant, a motivational letter, answers to a fixed questionnaire, a resume and an one minute video in which the applicant explains why he or she should be among the first humans on Mars.”
Given the requirement to provide that much information, as well as pay a fee, many were extremely impressed that Mars One had attracted that many applications so quickly. The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, noted that Mars One could have raised several million dollars based on application fees alone, and they’re not the only ones doing that fiscal math. However, those estimates, and that overall application number, require something of an asterisk.
The same day that Mars One made the announcement, I spoke with Bas Lansdorp, the co-founder and CEO of Mars One, at the Humans 2 Mars Summit, a conference in Washington organized by the space advocacy group Explore Mars. I asked him about the 78,000 figure and whether that means that all of these people have completed the application process, including paying the application fee. “I don’t know exactly what the distribution is,” he said. “People register, they pay, they start filling out their information, they have the movie to make, the movie to upload,” he said, which is then reviewed and made public if the applicant chooses to do so. “I think we have something like 700 movies online or so.” (A check of the Mars One application web site appeared to show, as of Thursday evening, about 570 videos available, based on the pagination of the videos on the site: 57 pages of 10 per page.)
So what does the 78,000 figure in the announcement represent? “It’s people who have at least done the first step,” he said. That appears to be to go to this page, which asks for only a few pieces of information: an email address, password, birth date, and country of residence. After completing the form, you’re prompted to check your email for a confirmation message; clicking on the link in that message takes you to a page asking you to pay the registration fee before proceeding with the rest of the application.
It wouldn’t be surprising, then, that there’s a sharp dropoff between those who simply complete the initial registration form and those who actually do pay (anywhere from $5 to $73, depending on the per capita GDP of the applicant’s nation). The fee serves a useful purpose by screening out those who aren’t that serious about applying, as well as providing revenue to cover the costs of the application review process. But if, as Lansdorp said, the 78,000 covers only those who completed that initial (and free) registration step, it’s a little misleading to say that 78,000 have applied, since that implies that they have all completed the registration process. Lansdorp said on Tuesday he didn’t know the breakdown of the numbers in the steps between the 78,000 who registered and the several hundred who had uploaded videos.
Lansdorp is, though, very pleased with the public response to the campagn, the first step in a long process to select the first four-person crew that Mars One plans to launch in 2022. “We were expecting half a million at the end,” he said, referring to the August 31 deadline for submitting an application. “To have already now a very good portion of that is actually quite surprising to me.”
It took a couple of days, but Virgin Galactic officials confirmed late Thursday that the company will “likely” raise ticket prices by as much as $50,000 to adjust for inflation since ticket sales started. In a statement provided by a Virgin Galactic spokesman late Thursday (after initially contacting them midday Tuesday), the company said prices would soon increase.
“Following the start of powered flight, it’s likely that we will soon see a rise in the price of Virgin Galactic space tickets, purely to adjust for inflation over the eight years or so that we have been making reservations available,” the statement read. “Longer term, our priority is still to reduce the price, and we do not anticipate going over $200k roughly per ticket in real terms.”
As for when the longer-term decrease in price might take place, the company said it was too early to determine when that could happen (although some reports indicated that the price cuts would start after the company flew about 1,000 people.) The decrease “will depend on the performance of a number of variables which will only really become evident as Virgin Galactic gets into commercial service and the industry emerges,” the company said in a response early Friday to a follow-up question.
As the space community celebrated Virgin Galactic’s successful powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo on Monday, the company may be using the test as an opportunity to raise its ticket price. In an interview with Los Angeles TV KABC station after Monday’s flight, Sir Richard Branson appeared to indicate a 25-percent price increase was in the works. “For a short while it will be $250,000,” he said, “and then once we’ve sent a thousand people into space, we’ll start getting the price down.”
Until now, the price for a Virgin Galactic seat has been $200,000. Did the price go up by $50,000, or did Branson—who, after all, is responsible for many more business ventures than just Virgin Galactic—simply misspeak? Branson offered a few more details to SPACE.com, indicating that the price was, in fact, going up to $250,000 in about a week to account for inflation, but plans to bring the price back down to $200,000 or less “eventually.”
Asked for confirmation Tuesday about the price increase, a Virgin Galactic spokesperson promised to look into the issue but has not responded further as of early Wednesday.
If the news is correct, the price increase would widen the gap between it and the other leading suborbital human spaceflight company, XCOR Aerospace. Space Expedition Corporation, which sells seats on flights by XCOR’s Lynx, is offering “Pioneer” flights on the Lynx Mark I, starting in the third quarter of 2014 from Mojave, for $95,000. That price increases, albeit slightly, for later flights on the Lynx Mark II: $100,000, for flights starting in 2015 from either Mojave or the Caribbean island of Curaçao. That’s 60 percent less than Virgin’s reported new price, although the two vehicles offer considerably different experiences: six people in a large cabin with the ability to float around for SpaceShipTwo, versus one person strapped into a cockpit seat for Lynx.
SpaceShipTwo during its first powered test flight on April 29, 2013. (credit: Virgin Galactic/MarsScientific.com)
The rumors were true this time. Early Monday morning, WhiteKnightTwo took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port with SpaceShipTwo slung between its twin fuselages. About 45 minutes after its 7:02 am PDT (1402 GMT) takeoff, WhiteKnightTwo released SpaceShipTwo, as it had done about two dozen times previously. This time, though, SpaceShipTwo did something it hadn’t yet done: ignite its hybrid rocket motor in flight. The motor burned for 16 seconds before turning off, after which SpaceShipTwo glided to a safe runway landing in Mojave. According to a Virgin Galactic statement issued after the flight, SpaceShipTwo reached a peak altitude of 16,800 meters (55,000 feet) and went supersonic, topping out at Mach 1.2.
“The first powered flight of Virgin Spaceship Enterprise was without any doubt, our single most important flight test to date,” Virgin Group chairman Sir Richard Branson said in a statement after the flight. “Today’s supersonic success opens the way for a rapid expansion of the spaceship’s powered flight envelope, with a very realistic goal of full space flight by the year’s end.”
“The rocket motor ignition went as planned, with the expected burn duration, good engine performance and solid vehicle handling qualities throughout,” said Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides. “The successful outcome of this test marks a pivotal point for our program. We will now embark on a handful of similar powered flight tests, and then make our first test flight to space.”
The company hasn’t disclosed a timetable for SpaceShipTwo’s future flights, beyond a “full space flight” (presumably to at least 100 kilometers altitude). After its first powered test flight on the Wright Brothers’ centennial (December 17, 2003), which was similar in performance to this one, SpaceShipOne flew three more test flights before its historic June 21, 2004, flight to 100 kilometers. That suggests there’s likely to be at least three more flights, and perhaps more, before SpaceShipTwo shoots for the Karman Line.
Below: video of the powered portion of the flight, from Virgin Galactic:
The latest parlor game in the space community has been trying to guess when Virgin Galactic will perform the first powered flight of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle. After SS2′s latest glide test, on April 12, the assumption has been that the vehicle’s next flight would be its first powered flight: the company had previously indicated that it would perform at least three glide flights of SS2 in a “powered flight” configuration, and the April 12th flight was the third such flight, all apparently successful. There were even rumors that SS2 would fly on April 22, but that date came and went without a flight.
There’s a new potential date for that flight, and it comes from an authoritative source. Speaking with the Las Vegas Sun on Tuesday, Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, Virgin Galactic’s parent, said a powered flight was imminent. “We’re hoping to break the sound barrier. That’s planned Monday,” he said. “We’ll break the sound barrier Monday and from there, we build up through the rest of the year, finally going into space near the end of the year.” That would seem to indicate that April 29th is the day of SS2′s powered flight, weather and technology permitting.
A key government official also indicated that SS2 was about to perform a powered flight. “They’re very, very close to doing their first rocket-powered test flight,” said George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, at a public meeting of the National Research Council’s Committee on Human Spaceflight in Washington on Monday. Nield wasn’t more specific about the date, other than “later on this spring.” Nield, like Branson, said Virgin would perform an incremental series of test flights, leading to a trip to space by late this year.
The Antares launch vehicle on the pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Virginia, earlier this week. (credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)
The launch of any rocket requires a large number of things to fall into place: all the various components and subsystems of the rocket itself, the weather, and the range. Getting all of that together is a challenge for a veteran rocket, but more so for a vehicle making its first flight. That’s why it shouldn’t be surprising that Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket is still standing on its launch pad at Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) this morning, after two very different issues postponed its first two launch attempts.
On Wednesday, it was the case of an unforeseen technical issue. About 12 minutes before the planned liftoff time, an umbilical between the rocket’s second stage and its Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL), which serves as the gantry for the rocket, disconnected from the rocket. The umbilical was an Ethernet data cable providing information on the state of the rocket’s upper stage. The disconnected cable meant that Orbital had to, figuratively and literally, pull the plug on Wednesday’s launch.
The problem, Orbital executive vice president and mission director Frank Culbertson said, was a combination of a “slight hydraulic movement” in the TEL and insufficient slack in the umbilical. When the TEL shifted slightly, the cable came loose. “The good news is that this is a simple adjustment to the external support systems,” Culbertson said at the time, and the launch was rescheduled for Saturday, since weather conditions on Friday were not promising.
Saturday dawned with a 90-percent chance of acceptable weather at launch time. A cold front passed through the night before and, while there were still some high clouds, conditions initially looked good for the launch. However, as the day wore on and the clouds gradually moved off to the east, powerful upper-level winds posed an issue for the launch. The concern was not with the vehicle itself, but worries that any debris from an accident would be blown beyond a designated limit. Ultimately, Orbital decided not to fuel the vehicle—thus preserving the option of a Sunday launch—and scrubbed the attempt at 4:30 pm EDT (2030 GMT) Saturday.
“We had the rare case of the wind coming from the southwest at a very high velocity,” Culbertson told reporters after the scrub Saturday. Orbital postponed the launch by over an hour, to 6:10 pm EDT (2210 GMT) to wait for more weather balloon data to come in on the state of the upper level winds, but saw no hope for a Saturday launch when the new data came in. “It was still red, and the trend towards green was not nearly strong enough, so we made the decision to go and scrub at this point.”
Other than the winds, though, the vehicle was in good condition, Culbertson added. Those upper level winds are forecast to diminish to acceptable levels on Sunday, with a 75-percent chance of acceptable weather at launch time: gusty ground level winds are the main issue, but Culbertson said that concern is “marginal” at best. So, perhaps Sunday conditions will align to permit a launch, or, perhaps, they’ll find another little unforeseen issue that forces them to try again another day.
A model of a lunar base displayed by Bigelow Aerospace in the exhibit hall of the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in October 2011. Bigelow is reportedly finalizing an agreement with NASA on how to potentially develop such bases commercially. (credit: J. Foust)
“It’s a classic opportunity for a very logical partnership to occur,” Bigelow said. “Bigelow Aerospace is kind of being used as the tool to gather together a number of major aerospace companies in this country and create an identification of the folks who can contribute what kind of hardware and identify timeframes for that and costs, and then orchestrate the various kinds of missions that otherwise NASA would not be able to afford.”
Bigelow’s comments suggested that the agreement is, at least for now, a study with NASA on the potential capabilities of the private sector to support such development. The first phase is a 100-day study to identify the various companies and assets that could be used. That would be followed by a 120-day “mission scenario” study. That second study would deliver to NASA “a variety of scenarios that that the private sector says it will support financially and timewise, and deliver these on a fixed-price basis,” he said, including options for NASA to buy or lease those facilities, as well as allowing other commercial use of them. That effort, he said, would also seek to make use of NASA’s Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) booster by providing new destinations for them.
Bigelow suggested that the goal of this was to enable a lunar base, something that has been in his company’s long-term plans to the point of constructing models of such a facility that make use of expandable habitats (see photo above.) “This agreement is coupled with private sector long-term plans of beyond low Earth orbit operations, including those of Bigelow Aerospace to place a base on the surface of the Moon,” he said, stating that he was reading from the agreement. “We’re making no bones about it, that that’s what we’re out to try to accomplish.”
At the end of the March 31 interview, Knapp asked Bigelow when the agreement would be made public. Bigelow said there were five dates under consideration for a press conference at NASA Headquarters to publicly reveal the agreement. Three of those dates—April 10, 11, and 12—have already passed. The other two are coming up this week: April 17 and 18. However, those dates conflict with the planned first launch of Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket, currently slated for the late afternoon of the 17th; holding a press conference the same day could distract from a rocket whose development NASA helped support. So we may need to wait a little while longer to find out more details about this agreement between NASA and Bigelow.
SpaceShipTwo and its contrail, created by a “cold flow” of nitrous oxide through its engine during an unpowered test flight on April 12. (credit: MarsScientific.com)
A successful glide flight Friday by SpaceShipTwo could be the final step before Virgin Galactic attempts what it calls “the most significant milestone” yet for the suborbital vehicle: powered flight.
SpaceShipTwo (SS2) performed a 10.8-minute glide flight April 12 in the skies above the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, the second such flight in as many weeks. This flight was distinguished by a “cold flow” test of the SS2′s propulsion system, where nitrous oxide flowed through the rocket engine and out the nozzle, creating a distinctive contrail. “As well as providing further qualifying evidence that the rocket system is flight ready, the test also provided a stunning spectacle due to the oxidizer contrail and for the first time gave a taste of what SpaceShipTwo will look like as it powers to space,” Virgin Galactic noted in a statement.
In December, when SS2 flew for the first time in its “powered flight” configuration, the company said it planned to perform at least two more glide flights in that mode before attempting a powered test flight. With Friday’s flight, it has reached that threshold, suggesting that a powered flight could come as soon as the next SS2 test flight. The Virgin Galactic statement suggested that they’re ready, or close to it, noting that Friday flight “completed the profile of the upcoming milestone flight – apart from actually igniting the rocket.” Also, the entry for the flight in Scaled Composites’s SS2 test log states that the flight was a “PF01 mission rehearsal”, with PF01 a likely designation for the first powered flight. (Friday’s flight was designated “CF01″, which may refer to it being the first “cold flow” test.)
A SpaceX Dragon spacecraft descends towards splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the Baja California coast on Tuesday. (credit: SpaceX)
After all the drama of its launch, the return of the latest Dragon spacecraft was, fortunately, a bit anticlimactic. The International Space Station’s robotic arm unberthed Dragon from the station, releasing it at 6:56 am EDT (1056 GMT). Dragon pulled away from the station and reentered a few hours later, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean a few hundred kilometers off the Baja California coast at 12:36 pm EDT (1636 GMT). All phases of Dragon’s return to Earth went well, according to SpaceX, and the capsule on a ship headed back to Los Angeles.
With that mission wrapped up, though, the focus of SpaceX shifts a bit. Until now, every Falcon 9 launch, dating back to the vehicle’s introduction in June 2010, carried a Dragon spacecraft of some kind (that inaugural launch carried a boilerplate model, while subsequent missions carried “real” capsules.) Now, however, SpaceX will be demonstrating over the next several months the ability of the Falcon 9 to carry more conventional satellite payloads using a new version of that rocket.
The company’s next launch, now planned for some time in June, will feature several firsts. The launch will be the first of the upgraded “v1.1″ Falcon 9. That version uses Merlin 1D engines that generate more thrust than the 1C versions uses on previous Falcon 9 vehicles. The company announced last week that the Merlin 1D was flight qualified after completing an extensive series of tests. The first stage of the Falcon 9 v1.1 is also longer to accommodate larger propellant tanks, and the nine Merlin engines are arranged in an “octagonal” (eight in a circle with the ninth in the center), rather than the three-by-three grid of the original Falcon 9.
The launch will also be the first to take place from the company’s new launch facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, on a pad previously used for Titan IV launches. The launch will also be the first to carry a satellite, and thus require the use of a payload fairing. The payload will be CASSIOPE, a Canadian satellite carrying a space weather instrument as well as a broadband communications technology demonstration payload.
Assuming that launch is successful, SpaceX plans to rapidly follow that mission with two commercial satellite launches. Speaking at the Satellite 2013 conference last week, Barry Matsumori, senior vice president for commercial sales and business development at SpaceX, siad the company plans to launch its first geosynchronous orbit (GEO) satellite, SES-8 for European satellite operator SES, in early July from Cape Canaveral. That would be followed in late July by another commercial GEO satellite, Thaicom 6. That rapid pace of mission raised more than a few eyebrows at the conference, but Matsumori confirmed they can turn the pad around at the Cape in less than three weeks if required.
Two more Falcon 9 launches are planned by SpaceX before the end of the year, Matsumori said. One will be the first group of ORBCOMM satellites, while the other will be the third Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) Dragon mission to the ISS.