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2010 bigger year for Canada’s Space Program

Dec. 14, 2009, Montreal – Canada's space program will try to catch its breath in 2010 after an action-packed year in which the country sent up a record-breaking astronaut and a celebrity clown who became its first space tourist.


December 14, 2009
By Peter Rakobowchuk | Canadian Press

Dec. 14, 2009, Montreal – Canada's space program will try to catch its breath in 2010 after an action-packed year in which the country sent up a record-breaking astronaut and a celebrity clown who became its first space tourist.

But next year might be even more historic.

The coming months could represent a pivotal moment for human activity in space as the United States, Canada, and commercial space companies all plan major announcements that will set the stage for a new era in space flight.

That high-level policymaking comes after a year that witnessed a variety of milestones for Canadians in space.

Bob Thirsk spent a record six months on the International Space Station, the most time a Canadian has ever spent in orbit.

When fellow astronaut Julie Payette visited him on the orbiting outpost, they became the first Canadians ever to meet in space. That feat was accomplished again later in the year, when Cirque du soleil billionaire Guy Laliberte paid $35 million to visit the station as he became Canada's first commercial space tourist.

An official at the Canadian Space Agency called it "a crazy year, but a very impressive year for us."

"Up to then, we had been supporting space shuttle missions, two weeks at a time,'' CSA director-general Benoit Marcotte said in a year-end interview.

Marcotte admitted the space agency didn't know at the beginning of the year how it would support an orbiting astronaut for six months.

What the future holds for Canada will be outlined in the long-term space plan being prepared by Steve MacLean, the head of the space agency.

The CSA has been consulting for the past year with key industry players, academia, government and its international partners.

Officials say the new Canadian space plan is still months away from being made public.

Governments are also keeping a close watch on the United States and, in particular, on the White House, as the Obama administration must decide how to respond to a report by a committee that examined the future of the U.S. space program.

One of the options recommended by the U.S. Augustine committee, which is apparently gaining support in the United States, is the so-called ''flexible path.''

That path would allow for visits to Mars and the moon, and perhaps also human missions to near-Earth objects like asteroids.

Those trips would occur in Orion spacecraft, which will eventually replace the U.S. space shuttles after the workhorses are retired in 2010.

The Orion looks a lot like the old Apollo capsule which originally transported Americans to the moon.

Until the Orion takes flight, any astronauts visiting the space station after 2010 will have to be ferried up in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

A NASA spokesman says all projects and operations will proceed as usual until the administration makes any policy changes.

But at least one private enterprise, Virgin Galactic, one of billionaire Richard Branson's many companies, isn't waiting for governments to act.

Virgin Galactic had already booked more than 300 suborbital flights at a cost of US$200,000 each when it unveiled its first spaceship earlier this month, christened with the Star Trek-like name, "VSS Enterprise."

A suborbital flight means a spaceship goes up into space but does not complete an orbit of the Earth.

After being launched mid-air from a carrier plane, the two-piloted space vessel would rocket six tourists about 110 kilometres above Earth where they would briefly experience weightlessness.

Eventually, that technology could allow passengers to visit another spot on Earth, say, fly from Toronto to Australia, in a fraction of the time.

Ottawa entrepreneur John Criswick, the first of 14 Canadians to sign up, says he's hoping to get into space before the end of 2011.

A company representative estimates Virgin Galactic will begin space flights within the next 12 to 24 months.

It will fly out of Spaceport America, a facility being set up in New Mexico for commercial space operations.

For those who consider the cost of a Virgin Galactic space ticket a little too pricey, Criswick says he's sure fares will come down.

"People should look to it in the next 10 years as a definitely interesting opportunity for them,'' says the Ottawa businessman.

Criswick, 46, says Virgin Galactic could also use its spaceship for transoceanic flights in the future "like two-hour flights to Australia, two-hour flights to Europe."

The Canadian businessman failed in his 1992 bid to become an astronaut. Now, not only does he hope to go to space for $200,000 he believes a "virtual" space experience will soon be accessible to just about everyone.

"Where you don't actually go, but where you're driving a rover on Mars on the Internet," he said.

Carolyn Wincer, who's in charge of Virgin Galactic's sales, says the company has big plans for space.

"We've ordered five spaceships and each one can take six passengers,'' she said in a recent interview.

"We will commence flight operations with one flight per week, and gradually increase the frequency as all the spaceships are delivered."

Wincer says Virgin Galactic estimates it will fly 500 people into space in its first year of operation.

As for the $200,000 fare, she says the goal is to have it drop "probably over a 10-to-15-year period."

Wincer adds that Virgin Galactic even has its eye on eventual commercial space flights to the moon.

"This is just the beginning, but it's the means to get much further,'' she said. "This is, for us, a permanent, long-term business.''

Virgin Galactic isn't alone in its plans to develop commercial space tourism.

Brian Feeney of Toronto and his 20-member team are continuing work on his XF-1 passenger space plane which he wants to turn into a "boutique operation."

The CEO and chairman of DreamSpace Group, who has worked in the aerospace sector all his life, wants to offer a suborbital space flight for less than $100,000.

The industrial engineer says he hopes to show off the XF-1A, a prototype of his space plane, this coming spring.

The final version of Feeney's spaceship, the XF-1B, would take passengers as high as 140 kilometres over the Earth.

"We'll begin to put our seats up for sale sometime in 2010, not any sooner than that,'' he said in an interview.

He's now seeking investors, and is hoping the federal government might "step up to bat for the industry and help it carve out a niche.''

Feeney's space plane would not be as large as the six-seater Virgin Galactic spaceship. It would only carry a pilot and one or two paying passengers.

"We're on the one-yard line of the beginning of the industry," he said in an interview.

"But it is going to be a consequential part of all near-space operations for decades to come."