By Evan Ackerman
European company Astrium (prime contractors for the Ariane 5 rocket)has unveiled plans for a business jet sized spaceplane that is able to take off and land from conventional runways, while taking four people 100km up to experience 3 minutes of weightlessness and one heck of a view. A while back, there was a lot of buzz about spaceplanes as potential replacements for the space shuttle. On the face of it, it seems like the best answer to space travel: up and back in one vehicle, no extraneous rockets or fuel tanks like the shuttle, and no carriers like Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne. The US government, despite billions of dollars and several tries including the X-30 and the X-33/VentureStar (all canceled) has finally settled on Orion, which is basically a reincarnation of the Apollo expendable rocket and capsule concept. So yes, even if it makes sense in terms of cost and lift potential, we’re still going backwards.
Leave it to the private sector to come through with a viable spaceplane design. Astrium’s propulsion system consists of two air breathing engines plus one rocket engine, making it a true single stage, reusable spaceplane. The timetable is fairly aggressive, with the first commercial flights scheduled for 2012 at between $200,000 and $250,000 each. Enjoy the video:
More pics available here.