On September 28th at the 2017 International Astronautical Congress, Elon Musk made international headlines by unveiling SpaceX’s plans to use its Big Falcon Rocket (BFR)—originally tasked primarily with sending the first human colony to Mars—for an exciting new purpose: carrying people anywhere on the planet in under an hour.

SpaceX plans to launch the BFR into a temporary orbit, travel around the world at an orbital velocity, and land in another city across the globe in the time it takes to cook basmati rice. The BFR’s newly added aerodynamic fins will help slow its decent into the atmosphere, eventually landing softly with retrorockets much like the Falcon 9. Such an unprecedented service would revolutionize human transportation to an extent not seen since the introduction of the automobile or the earliest days of flight.

Although Musk’s intercontinental ambitions are undeniably evocative and exciting, the dream of flying from New York to Hong Kong in a spaceship is nothing new. In fact, governments and private entities have been developing technology for this very purpose since the 1950s. While many attempts to create these vehicles have failed (see the Rockwell X-30 and the failed National Aero-Space Plane Program), scientists and engineers around the world have remained vigilant, leading to a recent renaissance in aerospace vehicle (ASV) technology. An aerospace vehicle is any vehicle capable of operating as both an aircraft in flight and a spacecraft “built to operate in, or place a payload or human being in outer space” (more info here). The possible applications for ASVs are practically limitless. Developers hope to make this technology both efficient and durable enough to replace conventional methods for everything from intercontinental transportation to the delivery of both humans and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).

Entities currently pursuing the development of operational ASVs include SpaceX, DARPA, the U.S. Air ForceUK’s Reaction Engines, Virgin Galactic, the Sierra Nevada Corporation, To The Stars Academy of Arts and Science, and the Indian Space Research Organization. Associated with these notable ASV initiatives are subcontractors and startups from across the aviation and space industries. Although the space industry is dominated largely by satellite communications and remote sensing, savvy space entrepreneurs would do well to keep an eye on ASVs and their evolving potential. The next few years may very well see exponential growth in this industry, creating many new opportunities for those seeking to become involved with the budding space economy. This article will help introduce space entrepreneurs to the world of ASVs by providing a basic introduction (and resources for further reading) to a list of key aerospace vehicles currently in production around the world.

SpaceX – Big Falcon Rocket

Credit: SpaceX

As previously described, the BFR is an aerodynamic spacecraft built to transport humans on lengthy journeys to the Moon and Mars. However, this spacecraft is also intended to eventually carry passengers across the Earth in a matter of minutes. Although not a “pure” ASV due to its vertical launch and landing with rockets, the BFR represents everything engineers and public/private investors have been pursuing for decades: an efficient and reusable spacecraft capable of transporting payloads to both orbit and intercontinental destinations at unprecedented speeds. SpaceX has already completed successful tests of the BFR’s Raptor engines and its giant carbon fiber cryogen fuel tanks. The future of the space economy may very well be defined by what SpaceX is able to accomplish with the BFR.

Virgin Galactic – SpaceShipTwo

Credit: Virgin Galactic

One of the most famous examples of an ASV is Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. Designed to carry passengers to the edge of space for a few minutes of weightlessness, Virgin’s new VSS Unity is lifted by its White Knight Two carrier jet up to 50,000 feet and then released. The craft then ignites its rocket engines and accelerates to the edge of space, eventually returning to Earth for a horizontal landing much like any other aircraft. Despite experiencing the tragic crash of its previous SpaceShipTwo, Virgin has remained dedicated to its vision, recently completing a successful free flight to test the unpowered landing capabilities of SpaceShipTwo. This suborbital craft is another example of an efficient and reusable aerospace vehicle with its sights set on changing the way humanity views space travel. Outside investors are jumping onboard as well, with Saudi Arabia recently investing upwards of 1 billion in Virgin’s space companies. Despite Virgin Galactic aiming its efforts primarily at the space tourism market, the technology developed for SpaceShipTwo has potential to help push the ASV industry forward.

Sierra Nevada Corporation – Dream Chaser

Dream Chaser
Dream Chaser Credit: Sierra Nevada

Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spacecraft is an aerodynamic lifting body intended to deliver cargo—and perhaps (someday) astronauts—to the ISS. The spacecraft will launch into orbit on a rocket and land horizontally on a runway much like the space Shuttle and SpaceShipTwo. Although the Dream Chaser has taken longer than expected to develop, the spacecraft recently completed its first free flight and landing test. The test’s success marked a significant step toward Sierra Nevada fulfilling its contract with NASA to deliver cargo to the ISS around 2020. Much like the BFR and SpaceShipTwo, the Dream Chaser hopes to increase the efficiency and decrease the cost of space travel, providing a multi-purpose craft that is both reusable and dependable. Despite the Dream Chaser’s primary purpose being transportation to the ISS, the technology used for this mission could also hurdle the Dream Chaser from one continent to another in record time.

Indian Space Research Organization – Avatar Spaceplane

Credit: ISRO

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)—one of the world’s fastest growing space agencies—is also developing an ASV called the Avatar Spaceplane. Avatar is an aerodynamic lifting body that will one day take off horizontally like an aircraft, using a combination of ramjet, scramjet, and cryogenic engines to launch the craft into orbit, eventually making a horizontal landing back on Earth. ISRO has already tested the capabilities of a technology demonstrator for the Avatar, launching it to mach-6 in a 2016 flight test. ISRO’s intentions for Avatar is to deliver up to 1,000 kilograms of payload into orbit for a little as US$70 per kilo, a feat made possible by the system’s reusability and quick turnaround time. Again, the future success of this vehicle and others like it would make access to space easier, faster, and more affordable.

The U.S. Air Force – X-37B

Credit: Boeing

The X-37B is a mysterious unmanned ASV crafted by Boeing for the U.S. Air Force. Since its first flight in 2010, the X-37B has spent thousands of days performing largely classified activities in low Earth orbit. Built like a dramatically scaled down version of the space shuttle, the X-37B also launches vertically on a rocket and lands horizontally like an aircraft. Although it does not carry passengers, this spacecraft has successfully demonstrated the efficiency, reusability, and dependability necessary to enable future ASV activities.

Reaction Engines – Skylon Spaceplane

Reaction Engines – Skylon Spaceplane
Credit: Reaction Engines

Another exciting player in the new ASV industry is Reaction Engines, a UK-based company developing next generation propulsion for a revolutionary spaceplane called the Skylon. Building on the scramjet technology of the 80s, Reaction Engines’ synergetic air-breathing rocket engine (SABRE) is designed to cool air from the atmosphere from 1,000 degrees Celsius down to negative 10 degrees Celsius in 1/100 of a second, effectively creating its own on-demand liquid oxygen. Reaction plans to operate the Skylon in air breathing mode up to mach-5, then switching over to conventional rocket propulsion for its final ascent to orbit. Using the atmosphere as an oxidizing agent would eliminate the need for over 250 tons of liquid oxygen each flight, helping drive down the cost of sending Skylon to space. This technology has attracted investment from both the European Space Agency and the US Air Force, underscoring the growing importance ASVs have in both military and civilian theatres. If the Skylon successfully flies to space and back, the potential applications for this technology will become practically limitless. Much like SpaceX’s BFR, Reaction hopes to develop the Skylon for both orbital payload delivery and intercontinental transportation.

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – HTV-2

Credit: DARPA

In addition to recent advancements in propulsion for ASVs by Reaction Engines, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been developing next generation airframes that can withstand speeds in excess of mach-20 (13,000 mph). A 2011 flight test of DARPA’s HTV-2 test vehicle proved its ability to fly at unprecedented speeds through the atmosphere, far exceeding what the vehicle was designed to handle. Airframes capable of withstanding such speeds are essential for the future development of ASV technology. If this technology is applied to modern transportation, it could have a massive impact on the way we travel both to/from space and around the world.

To The Stars Academy of Arts and Science – Electrogravitic Propulsion Vehicle

To The Stars Concept Advanced Electromagnetic Vehicle
Concept for Advanced Electromagnetic Vehicle Credit: To The Stars Academy of Arts Science

World governments and high profile corporations are not the only ones pursuing ASV technology. The dream of traveling at hypersonic speeds to far way destinations is also capturing the hearts and minds of the general public. Well known rock star and filmmaker, Tom Delong (Blink-182, Angels and Airwaves), has begun a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign aimed at building an “electrogravitic propulsion” vehicle capable of traveling well beyond mach-6. To help accomplish this task, Delonge’s To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science has assembled a team of accomplished aerospace engineers, advanced programs managers, and propulsion physicists from the CIA, Department of Defense, and Lockheed Martin’s “Skunk Works,” hoping to create the technology of the future for the benefit of the public. According to To The Stars’ Aerospace Division Director, Steven Justice (former director for advanced systems at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works), “This is a concept for an international point-to-point transportation craft that will erase the current travel limits of distance and time.  It mimics the capabilities observed in unidentified aerial phenomenon by employing a drive system that alters space-time metric”. Although this unlikely joining of personalities and assets may seem ridiculous to some, it is exactly these sort of initiatives that inspire the public, inspire innovation, and drive industry forward.

The Future and Entrepreneurship

The future is one of instantaneous point-to-point transportation on Earth, daily cargo deliveries to space stations in orbit, and frequent missions to the Moon and Mars. This future will be driven by vehicles capable of incredible feats, some of which may appear to defy the laws of physics and aerodynamics. Nonetheless, this future is taking shape, all we have to decide is what to do with it. A future of reusable ASVs will require innovative problem solvers, designers, programmers, engineers, physicists, logistics experts, and even lawyers. ASV operators will likely require extensive refueling and maintenance services, international marketing/branding, personnel and passenger training, dynamic legal frameworks, and a host of other industry related services. Today’s space entrepreneurs have a unique opportunity to make an impact in the beginning stages of this fledgling industry. Keep an eye on these developing technologies and get ready for an exciting future.

Posted by Marshall David Mckellar