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Indian finalises tourist spacecraft design

December 30, 2005 05:04 IST
Dr Chirinjeev Kathuria's dream of tourist flights to space crossed another milestone this month when his company PlanetSpace finally picked a design for an eight-person orbital fly back spacecraft.

After four years of research, the company has decided to base its next rocket vehicle on a hypersonic glider known as the Flight Dynamics Laboratory #7. The PlanetSpace version of the FDL-7 is a 45 ft long glider called the Silver Dart that can carry up to eight adults.

"It is a re-usable vehicle. It can fly at least a hundred times to space," Kathuria said.

It was developed by Prof Paul Czsyz, professor emeritus of aerospace engineering at Saint Louis University in 1964. "This design came out of work started in the 50's by the Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory. When the government decided to exclude the military from space development, the significance of this design was lost," Czysz, president of HyperTech Concepts and advisor to the PlanetSpace, said.

However, for the past four years, Geoff Sheerin, president and CEO of PlanetSpace, had been negotiating with Czysz for the tourist venture.

NASA recently announced that it would spend $500 million over the next four years subsidising the development of commercial services for delivering cargo and possibly people to the International Space Station. NASA has asked companies to submit their designs by February.

This was the immediate reason for making the selection of FDL-7 public. Planetspace will submit the Silver Dart design to NASA for its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services proposal.

Even if PlanetSpace does not win, they still have backup plans for the Silver Dart. Sheerin said the company is in negotiations with some leading aerospace companies to fly components for the Glider.

Once the Canadian Arrow rocket is ready, the Silver Dart will be used to fly tourists. Kathuria expressed the hope that they will be the first to fly the tourists probably before 2008. He plans to charge $250,000 for a 15-20 minute flight.

Rival company Virgin Galactic has already started booking for a space flight for a charge of $200,000. "Our flights will have more facilities and duration. So we may charge a little more," Kathuria said.

Being a glider, the Silver Dart will be more flexible and it can return to earth faster than other vehicles, Czsyz said, adding that it can land even at a place with minimal facilities.

"The Silver Dart allows us to build on the work we are now doing with our Canadian Arrow rocket," Sheerin said. "A cluster of 10 Canadian Arrow rocket engines provides the 700,000 tonnes of thrust required to boost the Silver Dart to orbit. PlanetSpace is one of only a handful of organisations that can provide this kind of thrust in a booster vehicle."

Kathuria, for his part, said "We have always stated that PlanetSpace will have both suborbital and orbital vehicles in our company. The Silver Dart is the beginning of what will be the orbital vehicle to provide different services and capabilities to our customers including responding to NASA's request for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services."

PlanetSpace Corporation is an international joint venture created by Kathuria, his affiliated companies and Canadian Arrow, a company based in London, Canada.

The flight will go up to 70 miles high and the sub-orbital flight will allows travelers to be designated as astronauts.

What's more, travelers get to keep the spacesuit!

PlanetSpace expects to fly almost 2,000 new astronauts in the first five years, and expects to generate revenues of $200 million in the fifth year, Kathuriua said.

The vehicle will go up at Mach-4, or four times the speed of sound. The space shuttle in use currently goes up 20 times the speed of sound, Sheerin said. "But both reach the same altitude. The difference is that our technology is far cheaper allowing for ordinary people to go up," he said.

The Canadian Arrow uses the V-2 rocket technology, invented by Nazi Germany, developed later. Kathuria was earlier associated with MirCorp, a joint venture with Rocket & Science Corporation Energia, a Russian company that sent Yuri Gagarin to space. MirCorp made history in 2000 when it launched the world's first privately funded, manned space program and signed up Dennis Tito to space as Earth's first space tourist or 'citizen explorer.'

Kathuria made his fortune in building a number of innovative businesses including American Teleradiology, Nighthawks and The X-Stream Networks, Inc.

George Joseph