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Mon, Feb 21, 2005

AERA: Space Tourism By 2006

Revitalized X-Prize Contender Sets New Goal

Last week AERA, a new company, created a stir among space watchers when it promised that it would launch space tourists by 2006. Why, how can a new, unproven company get started that quickly while Mojave Aerospace Ventures, the victorious X-Prize team of Allen and Rutan, is still reported to be in early stages of building SpaceShipTwo -- the enlarged, redesigned space tourism ship that we previously reported?

Well, as it turns out, AERA isn't all that new. It was an X-Prize contender itself, as American Astronautics Corporation (AAC). (Indeed, if you follow a link to www.americanastronautics.com, it takes you to the new company's website). American Astronautics' X-Prize contender, The Spirit of Liberty, was designed from the outset as a space tourism vehicle -- indeed, AAC's X-Prize info sheet says that the Spirit is the "first production unit of the AAC Starliner Model 7S rocket ship, specifically designed for commercial operations serving the emerging commercial space tourism industry." AERA's spaceship, the Altairis, will not be unveiled until a media event in March, but the smart money says it will strongly resemble The Spirit and its Starliner booster.

The two top executives of AERA provide some clues to how it developed from AAC. The Chairman & CEO, and Chief Scientist, is Bill Sprague, a space-launch industry veteran who has worked for a who's who of the commercial and military space industry and worked on, or headed up, a what's what of American launch projects, manned and unmanned. Sprague was also the head of AAC. Joining him in the executive suite is Lewis Reynolds as President and COO, who despite his youthful appearance, has had an equally successful career in banking and investment finance. "Mr. Reynolds joined AERA Corporation after arranging a significant venture capital investment for the company," his corporate bio tells us.

So that's their formula -- start with genius. Apply money. Well, it worked for NASA and it worked for Rutan! It could work for AERA as well.

Sprague stresses the safety of his approach. "We employed 30 years of proven technology and improved upon it with modern capabilities to develop Altairis, our first generation spacecraft. AERA's commitment to the space travel experience is surpassed only by its commitment to safety," he promised. On the website, AERA claims that Altairis is "the safest space flight system ever created."

Reynolds agrees that the company is moving ahead of competitors. "We are not only positioned to become the first space travel provider, but are two years ahead of the competition."

With AERA, much of the American symbolism and verbiage surrounding AAC is toned down (suggesting, perhaps, foreign investment), but the system remains a vertical launch, parachute recovery system based primarily on proven 1960s NASA concepts. The engine is a conventional LOX/Kerosene type.

No specs have yet been released for Altairis, but the look for a 22,000 pounds gross weight at takeoff, 35,000 pounds of thrust and a peak acceleration of 4G. The vehicle stands 56 feet tall on its vertical launch pad, and is a max of about five feet in diameter. The widest part is the passenger cabin which holds seven passengers.

Unlike SpaceShipOne, the commander of the flight has little control during ascent and re-entry -- in this way, also, it is much like a Mercury flight. Where the AERA/AAC project differs from 1960s practice is in its landing, thanks to over 40 years of rapid innovation in parachute technology. The booster and the crew cabin will recover separately to the launch site using GPS-controlled ram-air parachute systems or "parafoils." An inertial navigation system backs up the GPS. The two elements of the craft glide in to touch down on airbag cushions.

AAC is not the only X-Prize contender to make the commercial move. As we note in another article, several other X-Prize contenders are now aiming at other, potentially lucrative, targets.

FMI: www.americanastronautics.com

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