Virgin Galactic, which has been trying to launch space tourism for more than a decade, recently completed its second test flight, renewing predictions it could begin passenger flights as early as this summer. Senior editor Jeri Clausing talked with Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, about the latest developments.
Q: Are we going to see passenger flights soon from Spaceport America?
A: I think so. ... I think they are getting close. I don't have a specific date, but I know that they have a staff there. That staff is growing. I would not be surprised if later this spring more and more people started getting based out of there to prepare for potential summer flights.
Q: What more do they have to do as far as testing? Are there certain FAA requirements, a checklist of sorts that they have to complete?
A: No, I think they've met all the FAA requirements. I think it's just a cautious redundancy to make sure that all systems are good. You know, they've got two test flights under their belt, which is great. The more the better. And they just want to prove out all possible scenarios. And I think that they're just erring on the side of caution. If you are taking up passengers, that is the best and most sensible approach to take. So I wouldn't be surprised if they do four more test flights, maybe, and see where that gets them.
Q: You mentioned a race of sorts between companies vying to launch passenger flights. Who else is in the running for flights this summer?
A: Blue Origin. That's Jeff Bezos' company. It's merely speculation on my part ... because they hold their cards close to the chest, so to speak.
Q: What is the difference between Virgin Galactic's spacecraft and Blue Origin's?
A: They are two entirely different vehicles. Virgin's is more of a space plane where Bezos's Blue Origin uses more of a capsule. The Virgin vehicle takes off horizontally and lands horizontally. Blue Origin's will take off vertically and land vertically. So that's really two different approaches. I've been inside both vehicles. I think both offer ample passenger room to unbuckle and go weightless. And so both will be an incredible experience for the customer.
Q: What about Elon Musk? Isn't he supposed to be taking someone to the moon?
A: There is a contract out there for him to take a passenger around the moon. It wouldn't be to the moon. I don't know the date on that yet. It's kind of a moving target. It could be 2023 or so.
Q: It looks like 2019 is going to be an exciting year for your group.
A: It's going to be very, very exciting because it's not just these two suborbital vehicles with Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, but it's also the commercial crew program with SpaceX and Boeing to take astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX [earlier this month launched] Demo 1, which is a demonstration vehicle that can dock with the Space Station, just not with passengers on it this time. So they are getting extremely close, and I think Boeing isn't too far behind.
Q: So are we looking at the potential for space tourism to the Space Station, too?
A: I wouldn't say immediately, because NASA has first dibs on these commercial space vehicles. But I think by proving out this technology, this will open up a lot of doors to what are the possibilities of bringing passengers to a space station, whether it's the International Space Station or a commercial space station.
Q: Virgin founder Richard Branson in the past has talked about using his space planes to dramatically reduce the time to fly from, say, New York to Dubai. Is that still on the horizon?
A: I don't know where Branson and Virgin stand on that, but I do know that there are several companies looking at those hypersonic flights, and I think SpaceX is one of them. The idea of point-to-point travel, of being able to get from Washington to Singapore in an hour and a half, is very appealing.