“The launch of a new era in space travel” is the bold claim of EADS Astrium for its Spaceplane, a model of which stands at the company’s booth (C220). Unlike space tourism proposals that involve a space element taken aloft beneath a ‘mother’ aircraft, the Astrium Spaceplane would operate from any airport or airfield that grants permission.
Two jet engines give sufficient power to lift the Spaceplane, its single pilot and four passengers to an altitude of more than 12 km, at which point the rocket engine ignites to boost the craft almost vertically at three times the speed of sound. It takes just 80 seconds to reach 60 km above Earth, at which height the rocket propulsion system shuts down, although inertia allows the Spaceplane to ascend to over 100 km.
The unusual experience of floating weightlessly may be enjoyed for a few minutes before the descent to Earth begins, spectacular views and the serenity of space providing unforgettable memories for those with deep enough pockets. The jet engines will spool up again at the 12 km point and the start of a 30-minute descent back to the spaceport.
However, before such flights can become routine, funding will be needed to share the cost of developing the Spaceplane towards the targeted first flight in 2012. Unveiled by EADS at the Paris Air Show earlier this year, the company continues to look for a 50-percent funding commitment from a partner.