During the Reagan administration of the early 1980s, senior government officials began to discuss the possibility of developing an “Orient Express,” a hybrid air and spaceplane that could carry ordinary people between New York City and Tokyo in about one hour. How would this be possible?
Actually, the concept was quite simple. It would require developing an aerospace plane that could take off like a conventional jetliner from an ordinary runway. Flying supersonic it could then reach an altitude of about 45,000 feet, where the pilot would start scramjet engines, a more efficient, faster jet engine that had the potential to reach hypersonic speeds. This would take the vehicle to the edge of space for a flight to the opposite side of the globe, from whence the process would be reversed and the vehicle could land like a conventional airplane. It would never reach orbit, but it could fly in space and passengers would experience weightlessness. The experience would be similar to orbital flight, except for a much shorter time.
The spaceplane concept has long held enormous promise and perhaps could well become reality within the first half of the twenty-first century. Most important, commercial spaceplanes promise passengers an opportunity to travel around the globe with greater speed and ease than anything available today.
The cost of such flights would be high, without question. Some advocates believe that existing technology would allow the building of passenger spaceplanes and sell tickets for as little as $200,000 per seat. Does a market sufficiently robust exist to support this effort? Market studies suggest that at least 50,000 passengers a year would fly a spaceplane at the price noted here. That could be a multi-billion dollar business! It could grow in size and become less expensive as technology progressed.
The most attractive part of spaceplane travel at first would be its novelty. Like flying on the Concorde between Europe and New York City, it would not sustain itself solely as a practical means of transportation during the first half of this century. Instead, bragging rights for having flown at hypersonic speeds would initially sustain the effort. Floating about the cabin, passengers would be able to peer out of ports and see the blackness of space above them and the blue-green Earth below.
Passenger service of this sort could offer an exceptional promise for financing space ventures. No longer dependent on government financing, space entrepreneurs might be able to raise funds for human space flight through the private sector. This would be a critical step in opening the space frontier to ordinary (albeit wealthy) people, thus helping to realize the promise that (almost) anyone can fly. Is this on the verge of becoming reality?
For many years I thought so. The development of the X-33/VentureStar through a NASA/Lockheed Martin partnership jazzed me in the latter part of the 1990s. But it ran into the twin problems of technology overstretch and funding constraints.
Through the efforts currently underway might we see a new spaceplane in the early twenty-first century. Perhaps the private sector efforts of SpaceX, Orbital/ATK, Blue Origin, and others will further this challenge. The successes thus far in this direction are positive signs, but I urge caution in trumpeting any current efforts as THE answer to this issue. Although the trajectory is positive, these firms still have a tough road to hoe before achieving an operational system. Likewise, the U.S. Air Force’s recent success with a modified X-37B reusable orbital vehicle suggests that innovation for non-crewed military purposes may also be applicable to spaceplane research and development.
Interestingly, beyond technology R&D at NASA—which of course may be critical to the next flight systems—the space agency may well have to look beyond its personnel and its various centers for the answer. This is not unprecedented, but it is troubling after more than fifty years of being able to harness its own capabilities to resolve these technological challenges.
To answer the question posed in the title, perhaps but there is no certainty.