Private Space Flight At 'Inflection Point'

Is private space flight really ready to take off? According to former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, speaking at the eighth annual International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight, the answer is a definite "yes".

"It's not an exaggeration to say that 2012 has really been an inflection point," said Lopez-Alegria; there is "a sea change going on" both in terms of achievements within the industry and the perception of this industry to the outside world.

Technovelgy readers have already seen the achievements of private industry; for example, the Elon Musk's SpaceX Dragon space capsule linked up with the International Space Station earlier this month in an historic accomplishment.


(SpaceX Dragon back at ISS)

Never to be outdone, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic shows off its first SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceliner (shown below mated to its WhiteKnightTwo mothership).


(Virgin Galactic's)

Science fiction fans have long been comfortable with the private exploration of space. Perhaps the earliest direct science fiction reference to journey to the Moon (at least, using a ship propelled by mechanical forces), Jules Verne details the trip From the Earth to the Moon in a projectile vehicle in 1867:

The projectile had now to be filled to the depth of three feet with a bed of water, intended to support a water-tight wooden disc, which worked easily within the walls of the projectile. It was upon this kind of raft that the travelers were to take their place. This body of water was divided by horizontal partitions, which the shock of the departure would have to break in succession. Then each sheet of the water, from the lowest to the highest, running off into escape tubes toward the top of the projectile, constituted a kind of spring; and the wooden disc, supplied with extremely powerful plugs, could not strike the lowest plate except after breaking successively the different partitions. Undoubtedly the travelers would still have to encounter a violent recoil after the complete escapement of the water; but the first shock would be almost entirely destroyed by this powerful spring. The upper parts of the walls were lined with a thick padding of leather, fastened upon springs of the best steel, behind which the escape tubes were completely concealed; thus all imaginable precautions had been taken for averting the first shock; and if they did get crushed, they must, as Michel Ardan said, be made of very bad materials.

The entrance into this metallic tower was by a narrow aperture contrived in the wall of the cone. This was hermetically closed by a plate of aluminum, fastened internally by powerful screw-pressure. The travelers could therefore quit their prison at pleasure, as soon as they should reach the moon.

The entire project, which included the mighty Columbiad that launched the projectile into space, was undertaken by the Baltimore Gun Club, a private organization led by the indefatigable Impey Barbicane.

Closer to our own day, Robert Heinlein detailed private exploration of the local parts of the galaxy in Methuselah's Children and using small craft like the Joy-Boat Junior. Private craft could be used to reach private homes in orbit in Heinlein's Waldo using a small broomstick speeder:

Grimes let his eyes run over his friend's fusiformed little speedster. Its body was as nearly invisible as the plastic industry could achieve. A surface layer, two molecules thick, gave it a refractive index sensibly identical with that of air. When perfectly clean it was very difficult to see...

Running down the middle, clearly visible through the walls, was the only metal part of the ship - the shaft, or, more properly, the axis core, and the spreading sheaf of deKalb receptors at its terminus. The appearance was enough like a giant witch's broom to justify the nickname....

From CBS News and Space.com.

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