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Science
THE X FACTOR
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Former astronaut Jeff Hoffman looks at the future of commercial spaceflight
Wednesdays 15 and 22 March 2006 9.00-9.30pm 

Ask a room full of typical kids today who would like to go into space and almost everyone raises a hand. But ask who thinks they actually will go into space and there is scarcely a murmur. The space age is almost 50 years old and yet the prospects for an individual getting a space ride seem lower than they were in the 1960s.

According to some entrepreneurs, all that is about to change. In these two programmes, Jeff Hoffman, himself a former NASA astronaut with five Space Shuttle missions to his name and now Professor of Astronautics at MIT, explores the X Factor, the initiative that could open space up to popular tourism.

Jeff Hoffman with SpaceShipOne
Prof Jeff Hoffman stands below SpaceShipOne, now on permanent display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC.

In this case, the X comes, not from some show for wannabee pop stars but for X as in ex-perimental or unknown. The X prefix was given to all the most innovative and secret NASA projects from the X1 that first broke the sound barrier and the X15 that became the first space-plane to the latest X43 hypersonic scramjet.

Fewer than 500 people have ever flown into space, less than half the number who have climbed Mount Everest. Without exception, they have been deeply moved by the experience. Quite apart from the emotional thrill and technological achievement, they have been deeply moved by the sight of our fragile blue planet seen from above, against the velvet blackness of space.

An increasing number want to share that experience and make it more widely available. To that end, a few years ago, a group of enthusiasts, celebrities and entrepreneurs founded the X Prize, a competition offering a $10 million reward to the first privately funded group that could launch a three-seater spacecraft into space twice within a two-week period.

Some of the inspiration for this came from the Orteig Prize which was won in 1927 by Charles Lindbergh when he became the first person to make a solo non-stop crossing of the Atlantic. His achievement turned aviation from the pursuit of barnstorming daredevils into a global passenger transport system. The X Prize organisers hope that the same will happen with spaceflight.

Programme One
The first programme is a tale of two spacecraft. The first, NASA's space shuttle, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Jeff Hoffman shares the experience of riding the fire, as the astronauts call it. But a single shuttle launch costs the American taxpayer around $1 billion and, in spite of strict safety routines, there have been two tragic accidents.

In contrast to this is SpaceShipOne. Developed by a small firm working in a hangar at Mojave airport in California and funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, SpaceShipOne was the leading contender for the X Prize.

It is lightweight and has inherent safety features such as a hybrid rocket that is more controllable than a solid fuel rocket but less complex than a liquid fuelled one. And instead of needing precise guidance for safe re-entry into the atmosphere, it behaves like a shuttlecock, using drag to slow it down and keep it pointing the right way. In 2004 it became the first successful private space vehicle and won the X Prize.

Listen again Listen again to Programme 1
SpaceShipOne with White Night
SpaceShipOne with its launch vehicle, White Knight.
Courtesy Mojave Aerospace Ventures, LLC.

Programme two
In the second programme, Jeff Hoffman assesses the prospects for space tourism. The team that won the X Prize are now building SaceShipTwo and have a commercial order for five craft from Sir Richard Branson who has founded Virgin Galactic to fly tourists on a suborbital flight into space. He may not have the market to himself for long.

A much greater technological challenge is to find a low-cost route into orbit. That requires eight times the speed of a suborbital craft and correspondingly higher heat and stress during re-entry. But several innovators believe it should be possible, and for a lot less money than the cost of the Space Shuttle. Meanwhile, the X Prize Foundation is trying to drive progress both by organising the X Prize Cup on the ground, featuring rocket races and spacecraft prototypes, and by sponsoring further prizes such as one to put a robot lander on the Moon.

The other great space power, Russia is joining in the fun too. Already, three tourists have bought $20 million tickets to fly on Russian rockets to the International Space Station. There is a plan to sell tickets to the super-rich for $100 million that would give them an orbit of the Moon. States and nations are vying to become the tourist space-ports of the future. But what are the risks and will we all eventually be able to afford a space holiday?

Listen again Listen again to Programme 2
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