“If we are going to have an economy built on innovation in Australia, I think space travel is a logical arena for that.”
The Spaceship Company (TSC), charged with building the craft that will eventually turn regular people into astronauts, is edging towards a critical point in its mission.
“We’ve had some incredible highs, and obviously some pretty big lows as well on the program,” said Enrico Palermo, the company’s general manager and executive vice-president.
Palermo’s love of space took him and his wife from Perth to London to chase his dream (“it was now or never, and we chose now”). He ended up in southern California’s Mojave Desert, where he now runs a team that has grown to 420 and which is currently bringing SpaceShipTwo (or VSS Unity) into the ‘heavyweight glide’ phase of flight testing.
Unity – which will eventually bring six passengers per trip above the 100 km Karman Line and a few minutes of weightlessness – is past captive carry and currently in its glide flight phase. After this is power flight (rocket propulsion testing).
Palermo joined TSC in 2006, helping develop a business model for the manufacturing and testing company for Virgin Galactic, which aims to operate the world’s first space travel line.
About 700 people from 58 countries have paid $US250,000 for the 1½ -hour trip on Unity. Only 559 have been to space so far, at the time of writing, and only eight have been tourists, following businessman Dennis Tito’s self-funded trip to the International Space Station in 2001.
Though the company has stopped giving dates for the first passenger flight, Virgin boss Richard Branson said in April that he’d be “very disappointed” if the program “isn’t well underway by the end of next year”.
Palermo is more cautious when asked about dates, saying cards remain close to the chest, and “we want to make sure that we’re ready to fly when it’s safe to fly versus meeting some public schedule for flight”.
Other billionaire-led companies – Amazon and SpaceX – are also working to offer space travel to those with the money. Though he doesn’t put it that way, it’s sometimes framed as a race of sorts to take regular people into space.
“If we were the only people doing this, I’d be concerned. Are we the only crazy ones who think there is a market here and a successful commercial venture?” asked Palermo.
“I think competition is a good sign that we’re attacking a business model that other entities believe in as well.”
“It’s really a race to commercial sustainability; it’s the race to fly 1000 or 10,000 people to space and as a sustainable business,” Palermo said.
“In some respects, the first commercial flights were done with Scaled Composites flights in 2004 and Dennis Tito’s flight to the station.”
The history of democratising space travel is riddled with false starts and incorrect predictions, and Virgin has stopped making them. The task is an incredibly difficult one, to be sure, and has taken longer than first imagined. A Virgin Galactic press release from 2004, for example, tells the reader that this might happen as soon as 2007.
Another example is an article in The Advertiser in 2006, when the company was considering Woomera as a second spaceport, reported on the planned start of Virgin Galactic’s space program in 2008. The same article also predicted Virgin would be the second company to launch passengers from Woomera after Rocketplane Kistler.
Predictions are tricky and dates are no longer set for the first launch.
Current areas of focus include flight readiness reviews, Unity ships two and three – currently under construction – for the planned fleet, and the program for safety.
Test flights only resumed in September last year, following the fatal 31 October 2014 VSS Enterprise disaster during a rocket-powered test flight. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found that the accident followed a premature deployment of the ship’s feathering system. Following the incident, a control inhibit has been installed to stop premature deployment.
As with any other form of transportation, there are dangers attached to space travel.
Asked about engineering skills developed in his pre-space career that were transferable, Palermo nominates project, operations and risk management. His last job before leaving Australia was as an offshore support engineer in various programs for Woodside.
“There are common approaches to risk management across industry,” Palermo said of the parallels.
“The safest spaceship is one that never flies. It’s a very energetic flight profile. How you manage risk, because there are inherent risks in flying rockets as there are inherent risks in operating offshore platforms, for example.”
The concept Virgin will use to fly above 100 km altitude has been in development since roughly April 1996, and involves a ‘point-and-shoot’ approach using a spaceship and a mothership.
Aerospace engineering visionary and Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan began the project, which ultimately saw Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne win the Ansari X Prize after flying a reusable rocket higher than 100 km twice in a fortnight, in 2004. The advantages include having large enough engines and enough fuel on the mothership to get through the thickest part of the atmosphere.
“The current mothership started flying in 2008, so in many respects it’s pretty much through its flight test program,” Palermo said.
“It’s flown, I think, over 250 times.”
Unity is taken to around 50,000 feet between the dual fuselages of White Knight Two, a catamaran-like craft with a 43 m wingspan and all-carbon fibre composite body. After about 45 minutes’ flight time Unity is launched.
“I think the most fascinating part is that it’s a hybrid between an aircraft and space vehicle,” said Michelle Courtney, Structural Design Engineer at The Spaceship Company and the other Australian employee at the firm.
“It seems so much more accessible for the customers and our future astronauts. You see a lot of competitors have the very traditional Apollo shape module.”
Another unique feature developed by Rutan is the pneumatically-actuated feathering system for re-entry, which is frequently likened to a badminton shuttlecock.
The wings of the plane fold up during descent, with aerodynamic forces then orienting it so it comes down belly-first. This maximises surface area and drag, and minimises the heat created.
Rutan once explained that “the key is a low ballistic coefficient… think of the difference between a bullet and a feather.”
Australia and space
The possibility of applying one’s skills in the space industry lures many bright Australians away, as it did with Palermo.
Early inspirations including sci-fi movies, the Hubble Telescope launch and the Galileo probe reaching Jupiter pushed the Perth boy towards being a ‘space geek’.
He left a solid job to chase a dream overseas, gained a scholarship to study at the International Space University, then signed on as employee number one at The Spaceship Company. With limited professional opportunities to exercise his passion here, he had to go.
“If we are going to have an economy built on or increasingly built on innovation in Australia, I think space travel is a logical arena for that,” Palermo said.
“Australia is certainly one of the world’s leaders in the resources industry and if you look at what Planetary Resources are doing [for example] there’s potential opportunities for Australia to combine it – traditional resource industry and space – and I think by not playing now, Australia could miss that potential future.”