Among several developments in the progress of private spaceflight, one of the most intriguing was the flight of SpaceX’s Grasshopper. This is the rocket that takes off and lands vertically, just like the rockets of 1950s science fiction. Actual space vehicles have saved energy by using some kind of atmospheric braking, being a heat shield and parachute like Apollo and Soyuz, or thermal tiles and wings like the Shuttle. Elon Musk thinks that viable economic spaceflight will need fully reusable rockets, hence the Grasshopper. The 10-story high vehicle lifted 250 metres and made a lateral deviation of 100 metres before returning to land on its launch pad.
Meanwhile Sierra Nevada was putting its Dream Chaser through some ground manoeuvres, pulling it along a runway at different speeds of up to 60 mph to test its braking, steering and on-board systems. In a few weeks time the vehicle will be tested at altitude and unmanned approach and landing. Dream Chaser does not use wings, like the shuttle, but is a lifting body whose entire shape provides its aerodynamic properties. It echoes a decades-old project, the Boeing X20 called Dyna-Soar, which was planned to do the same but was abandoned half a century ago.
In yet more private spaceflight news, Virgin Galactic announced it now has 625 people signed up for suborbital space hops. At $250,000 a time passengers will reach outer space (just) and experience a few minutes of weightlessness. They hope to fly SpaceShip2 under power by the end of the year, and begin the first commercial flights next year.
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