Forget NASA's giant rockets, forget even the Russian Space Agency's vintage but reliable Soyuz vehicles: The future of space travel for you and me (assuming we're filthy rich) is in private hands. Jeff Bezos' and Richard Branson's, actually.
Jeff Bezos' Mystery Blue Origin Rocket
Jeff Bezos, better known as founder and CEO of Amazon.com has a sideline you might not have heard about. The fact you've not heard about it isn't perhaps a surprise—his Blue Origin spaceflight project has been largely shrouded in mystery, despite interest from NASA.
But just recently the Blue Origin project's timeline was publicized on the Web site, particularly highlighting the timing for human flight into space—2012. Unmanned launches of science experiments are expected in 2011, and three experiments have already been selected.
Not much is known about the actual vehicle itself, which is dubbed New Shepard, apart from its vertical launch and vertical landing status—somewhat similar to the experimental Delta Clipper X rocket system by McDonnell Douglas. That's not a bad comparison to draw in fact, since several engineers who worked on the DCX project then became Blue Origin employees.
Another space project in the news is Burt Rutan's LauncherOne vehicle, a partnership project with Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic company. LauncherOne is designed to revolutionize the space cargo-launch business by offering a private, ultra-low cost system to get small satellites into the void. When complete, LauncherOne will get a piggyback lift up to altitude under the wing of launch aircraft Eve, and will take payloads between 1kg and 200kg up to a maximum 800km altitude for a $1 million to $2 million price bracket—significantly less than half the current fee of $5 million to $10 million.
Having failed to win any money towards the project from the U.K. Government recently—historically a body with a somewhat closed mind as far as space funding goes—LauncherOne is now an internal project inside Virgin Galactic.
You'll be hearing a lot about SpaceShipTwo in the coming weeks, since it's due to be officially unveiled on December 7th. SpaceShipTwo is the Scaled Composites-built space vehicle that'll be carrying Virgin Galactic's paying passengers on their six minute pop-gun rides into zero gravity 110km above the Earth's surface.
Captive test flights will begin early in 2010, and the limited timeline info made available suggests that the first manned flights into space will begin sometime in 2011—plenty of time to load up on astronaut ice cream and build your Bowie MP3 playlists.