Many children dream of becoming an astronaut, yet only a few ever see that dream realised. That may soon change, thanks to the European Union (EU)-funded project, Future High-Altitude High-Speed Transport 20XX (FAST20XX). Run by a European consortium, which was led by the European Space Agency (ESA), the project investigated and developed technologies to conquer the grey zone between aeronautics and space in Europe.
© Kovalenko Inna fotolia
The results achieved set the foundation for a new, long-term transportation paradigm, which would commercialise space flight and move it closer to the general population’s reach.
In particular, FAST20XX team worked on two concepts: recreational suborbital flight (space flight that has less energy than needed for entering orbit) and point-to-point transportation (moving from one place to another). The first concept, ALPHA, is a vehicle that is air-launched from a carrier plane before it ignites its own hybrid rocket motor to climb out of the atmosphere and then glide back to the Earth. Passengers on this recreational suborbital flight would reach an altitude of 100-120km, crossing the Kármán line (the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space). “Everyone who crosses that line can call themselves an astronaut,” says Rafael Molina from the ESA, who took over as coordinator of the three-year project in 2011.
FAST20XX project team managed to develop the ALPHA concept to the point where, if resources allowed, its entire system – from the space-plane itself, to its hybrid propulsion, to the corresponding flight control system – could start being developed. Molina explains that, because ALPHA highlighted regulatory and technological problems, the concept was an important step for his team towards commercial, rocket-powered point-to-point transportation. These problems need to be solved before their second concept, SpaceLiner, is ready for development.
After that, the advanced form of point-to-point transportation, SpaceLiner, would “allow a person to fly from Europe to Australia in two hours,” explains Molina. The futuristic vessel is to be powered by a rocket engine and would take off vertically, and land horizontally. Although SpaceLiner is not yet ready for development, the project team has uncovered and solved numerous technical issues related to its design. For the first time, environmental aspects, such as sonic and chemical pollution of suborbital space flight were also investigated.
“Space flight is a dream for so many people. This project has made that dream a bit more attainable,” adds Molina. FAST20XX project also highlighted the need for an international regulatory framework for space flight. “We have plenty of engineers capable of developing innovative suborbital transportation, so it is high time we develop an international framework,” believes Molina. Currently, only the United States has such a system. Its Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has provided licences to build a number of spaceports across the country and has eased rules for selling suborbital flights to the general population.
So far, US suborbital tourism projects have been very successful. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, for example, raised over $40 million in ticket deposits and sales over the past three years, even though not a single flight has yet been scheduled. Molina believes a European competitor to US providers is sure to prosper. Because according to Molina, “flying in space would be a life-changing experience for anyone. Who would say no to such a dream?”