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PlanetSpace inks space tourism deal with NASA

By George Joseph in New York
Last updated on: February 03, 2007 23:16 IST
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Chicago based PlanetSpace, the space tourism company headed by Indian-American Chirinjeev Kathuria, has signed an agreement with NASA to facilitate the commercialisation of low-earth orbit flights.

The company said this would boost their efforts to send tourists to space by 2009 and help quick point-to-point travel across the earth using a space vehicle.

According to the agreement, NASA will cooperate and facilitate the commercialisation of low-earth-orbit flights as the company develops capabilities to transport goods and people after going into orbit.

"We are very excited about working with NASA to help develop commercial access to space. PlanetSpace anticipates investing significant private capital towards its activities and completing our first demonstration flight by December 2009," said Kathuria, the company's chairman.

The agreement was to NASA's advantage, too, Kathuria said.

"NASA wants to retire its space shuttles by 2010 and wants to concentrate on missions to Moon and Mars," he said. "So they want private enterprises to send cargo and crew to the International Space Station by then."

NASA will start giving contracts to companies that demonstrate the ability to reach the ISS by 2010-2012, he said, adding, "Space flight companies that will show the capability to reach the space station will get contracts worth many millions."

The ISS orbits about 200 miles up in the space. PlanetSpace's Silver Dart vehicle is already capable of reaching the ISS, Kathuria said.

PlanetSpace will develop a demonstration vehicle to reach the ISS by 2009, according to Kathuria and Sheerin, the chief executive officer of the company.

NASA also signed the agreement with another company, Transformational Space Corp (t/Space), of Reston, Virginia.

These non-reimbursable Space Act agreements do not involve the agency funding these companies. But they do have milestones and objective criteria by which the companies can gauge their own progress, as part of the agency's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program, a statement from NASA said.

Under the agreements, NASA will share information that will help the companies understand projected requirements for space station crew and cargo transportation launch vehicles, spacecraft and NASA human rating criteria.

PlanetSpace and t/Space will work to develop and demonstrate the vehicles, systems and operations needed to transport crews and cargo to and from a low-Earth orbit destination.

"NASA is proud to reach agreements with two more private companies dedicating their own resources toward establishment of a robust commercial launch industry," Scott Horowitz, NASA associate administrator for Exploration Systems, said.

"By stimulating the growth of commercial space enterprise, NASA will free itself to focus on long-range exploration of the moon and Mars, he said.

According to Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of the Commercial Crew and Cargo
Program Office at Johnson Space Center, Houston, these agreements demonstrate the willingness of entrepreneurs to invest their own resources while NASA has committed itself to help develop a new sector of the commercial space industry.

The program administers NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services project.
Its overarching goals are to stimulate commercial enterprises in space; facilitate US private industry development of reliable, cost-effective access to low-earth orbit, and to create a market environment in which commercial space transportation services are available to government and private customers.

Last year, NASA signed funded agreements with Space Exploration Technologies of El Segundo, California, and Rocketplane Kistler of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Space was a finalist in that competition.

"PlanetSpace has been working with a consortium of partners and suppliers for two years on design details for its NOVA booster and Silver Dart," Sheerin said.

The NOVA booster is a design based on the highly successful Soyuz Russian booster that supplies crew and cargo to the ISS now. Depending on mission requirements, various payload modules can be carried by the Silver Dart to orbit and returned for a runway landing. The Silver Dart has a glide range of 25,000 miles (one earth circumference) with a cross range of over 4,000 miles.

PlanetSpace has also signed a Space Act Agreement with Marshal Space Flight Center to get technical support to develop its space transportation system, particularly involving propellant tank design, structural engineering and flight operations, Sheerin said. The Marshal location is where the US designed and built the Saturn boosters that, among other flights, powered the Apollo program that sent man to the moon.

The engine development is in the final stages and tests are due as early as June, Sheerin said. The Silver Dart vehicle is also in the final stages.

Kathuria said space tourism is important for the company given the cash cow it represents. Each tourist taken into flight can earn the company about $200,000 and there are thousands of people waiting to fly into space, he said.

The company's other area of interest is point-to-point travel, wherein a vehicle capable of space flight can take travelers from India to New York in 40 minutes.

The Silver Dart hypersonic glider is ideal for intercontinental travel. The design for it was developed by the US Air Force in the early 1960s and later used by NASA.

Major competitors of PlanetSpace are Virgin Galactic, backed by British billionaire Richard Branson, and Blue Origin, funded by founder Jeff Bezos.

Kathuria was born in India and has lived in Illinois since he was eight months old. An MD from Brown University, he also holds an MBA from Stanford University.
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