Cover Story: Space travel

Our Man in Space

He applied with NASA to be an astronaut but was rejected. Today, Indian-born entrepreneur Chirinjeev Kathuria is poised to change the face of space and air travel with a nifty new spacecraft

By Rakesh K. Simha

Fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen. Your flight from New Delhi to New York will take approximately 45 minutes, no stopovers.” Sounds like science fiction doesn’t it? Except that as early as 2012 this could be an extremely viable travel option for the busy business traveller. The Silver Dart, developed by Chicago-based PlanetSpace, promises to revolutionise air travel by rocketing into space and gliding down to any point on earth in less time than it currently takes to get to the airport by taxi. So you can attend your meeting, shop at Macy’s, and be home for dinner, basking in the knowledge that your cousin who took Continental is still hours from JFK airport. The only drawback—no coffee on board. However, going by the dipping quality of in-flight service on airlines, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing at all.

International commuting isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, says PlanetSpace chairman Chirinjeev Kathuria, who is no stranger to privately funded space flight. The New Delhi-born businessman is a founding director of MirCorp, the company that made history on April 4, 2001, when it launched Dennis Tito on a Russian spacecraft as Earth’s first space tourist. That epochal flight cost Tito $20 million—and no frequent flyer miles—but Kathuria says the arrival of PlanetSpace means you’ll pay a lot less but as many bragging rights.

PlanetSpace has signed an agreement with Canada’s Nova Scotia province to build a space launching facility. According to the agreement, Nova Scotia would set aside 300 acres of land on the island Cape Breton off the Canadian coast for the facility. PlanetSpace is also in talks with the Canadian Space Agency for Canada’s first commercial manned space programme, for which the new facility would be constructed.

“The facility will see orbital flights, similar to the Kennedy Space Center,” says Kathuria. Rockets launched from Cape Breton, which is at the same latitude as the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the site of Russia’s Soyuz launches, would require less fuel to reach space than those launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida, according to a report in the New Scientist Space.

PlanetSpace has already designed, built and tested a 57,000 pound thrust engine. A cluster of 28 rocket engines provides the thrust required to boost the Silver Dart to orbit. The orbital vehicle, the Silver Dart, is a hypersonic glider developed in the early 1960s known as the Flight Dynamics Laboratory #7 (FDL-7). “Even at Mach 22—its normal gliding speed—the Silver Dart is stable. Importantly, it approaches the speed of a normal jet plane on landing. So, it’s an ideal vehicle for intercontinental travel,” says Kathuria.

“India is going to be one of our core areas of operation, given the emerging Indian economy.” 
—Chirinjeev Kathuria
Chairman, PlanetSpace

Kathuria and his company have also signed an agreement with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)—which a few years back rejected his application to become an astronaut—to commercialise low-earth-orbit for transportation of goods and passengers. Under the agreement, PlanetSpace 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, he said. “We are very excited about working with NASA to help develop commercial access to space,” says Kathuria.

PlanetSpace expects to fly 2,000 space tourists in the first five years and generate revenue of $200 million in the fifth year. Fares will start at $250,000 for a sub-orbital flight, which will include 14 days of training. It’ll be an extraordinary view from space—you get the same of the earth as shuttle astronauts—plus you’ll be weightless for four and a half minutes, 

So when are they going to touch down in India. “India is going to be one of our core areas of operation, given the emerging Indian economy,” says Kathuria. “I know it doesn’t sound like a bargain price from a regular price stand point, but there are plenty of people around the world willing to do it.”

To be sure, PlanetSpace isn’t the only one offering private space flight. There is stiff competition from Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin created by billionaire Jeff Bezos, Virginia-based Space Adventures and California-based SpaceX.

With so many players in the game—not counting the Russian, American, Chinese and Indian government programmes—prices should dive back to earth from the currently stratospheric levels. Predicts the chairman: “The internet has opened up the world to rapid information exchange. Suborbital space flight will do the exact same thing to travel. In five to 10 years, the cost of a suborbital flight will be competitive vis-a-vis regular jet travel.”

Time enough for all of us to save up for the ultimate joyride.

December 2007

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