A Holiday in Space

Who's flying high and how to be a space tourist

EADS Astrium

Founded: 2007
Nationality: Europe
Vehicles: Sub-orbital space plane
Capability: Sub-orbital
First flight: none scheduled

Looking more like an executive jet than a spaceship, EADS Astrium is the first of the world’s aerospace giants to make a serious proposal for the space tourism industry. Since the Space Plane (it has yet to attract a more exciting name) was announced to the public at 2007’s Paris Air Show, there have been no new announcements, although it’s covered in some detail on the Astrium website.

The Space Plane under rocket power

At the moment it looks like Astrium is still hoping to find more than £600,000 to develop the concept from the drawing board to first flight, which it predicts would take about seven years.

The Astrium Space Plane is designed to take off from a normal runway, powered by two turbofan jet engines, which would take it to an altitude of 12km in about 45 minutes. The pilot would switch off the jets and engage a methane-oxygen rocket for an 80-second burn on a steep trajectory, reaching a top speed of Mach 3 and pulling up to 3g. At 60km the rocket shuts off and the Space Plane coasts in a ballistic flight to a peak altitude of 100km.

Inside the Space Plane's cabin under zero-G

Weightlessness should last for three to five minutes, and the Space Plane would re-enter the atmosphere at a high angle of attack, reaching 4.5g as it’s slowed by the atmosphere, before levelling out and re-starting the jet engines at 15km altitude to land like any other small jet.

The rocket engine would be based on the Vulcain used by Ariane, but designed to make up to 30 flights, and each plane should be able to fly once a week. Astrium proposes building a fleet of 20 planes, building five per year and producing 20 rocket engines per year to support its customers. With a predicted ticket price of £175,000, the Space Plane would be more expensive than Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two.

The Space Plane coasting in its ballistic phase

Like most of its sub-orbital spaceflight competitors, Astrium is proposing a three-way business plan: tourism, low-cost microgravity science, and cheap launches for small satellites. The Space Plane will carry four passengers in swing-mounted couches who would be able to move around during zero-g flight. Satellite launches will need either an underslung payload carrier and booster, or a modified craft with an unpressurised cargo bay, which could open to release the payload - the same might also be useful for science payloads. Finally, as with XCOR Lynx/Space Expedition Curacao, Astrium is proposing the Space Plane as a stepping stone towards high speed intercontinental flights which could span London-Tokyo in a few hours.

At the window of the Space Plane

All images copyright Astrium