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Reusable Launch Vehicles

The idea of reusable launch vehicles is a recent development in the space tourism industry. The U. S. space program actually started in earnest with President John F. Kennedy's pronouncement that the United States intended to put an American on the moon. The first earthlings to land on the moon were American astronauts in 1969.

Reusable Launch Vehicles

Manned flights to outer space were very expensive back then because a novel set of spacecraft and gear had to be fabricated for each manned mission. That's when the idea of reusable launch vehicles were conceived.

When the Space Shuttle was launched, it ushered in a new era of reusable launch vehicles, although only partly because the bay that houses the rocket propellants are deemed expendable. While the crew bay of the Space Shuttle is reusable, it takes at least two months to refit the shuttle for another mission. Again this entails a lot of cost just to reuse the space vehicle and thousands of man-hours to complete the refitting work. With estimates made available by NASA, it was found that the cost of refitting and using a new space vehicle are almost even. To launch a shuttle costs roughly $20,000 per kilogram, a figure much higher than when expendable launchers are used.

The brouhaha about the viability of reusable launch vehicles stayed in limbo for quite some time, until the private sector tried its hand in this technology. Then the Ansari X PRIZE competition was unveiled, which was searching for companies that can effectively launch a spacecraft capable of suborbital manned flights and land back safely on Earth. To qualify for the competition, a vehicle must be made available for two flights and only a week apart. Small players in the industry started work in earnest because of the $10 million dollars prize that awaited the winner.

Among the few companies that answered the call was Scaled Composites. Aircraft design personnel were actually in the forefront of developing a reusable launch vehicles for private use. The competition happened to be a blessing in disguise since this would also serve as a preliminary test of their space vehicle. Moreover, if everything is found satisfactory, a hefty reward is likewise at hand. All systems go was raised for SpaceShipOne, the concept space vehicle from Scaled Composites. Eventually the venture proved to be very successful with SpaceShipOne reaching outer space at a height of over 70 miles above the earth with speed reaching over mach 2.

The idea of reusable launch vehicles was deemed successful because records obtained from the company revealed that it only needed $80,000 to launch SpaceShipOne. Then fate intervened. Due to the success of SpaceShipOne, British businessman and CEO of the Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson said he desired a new design of a spacecraft based on SpaceShipOne that will be utilized for his space tourism program.

Virgin Galactic is one of the companies that will open its doors to private space travel and a reliable, reusable launch vehicles just like the SpaceShipOne is high on its list of priorities. Virgin Galactic and a couple of other companies are scheduled to launch the first tourists into outer space by the early part of 2009, if delays would not forestall this timetable.

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