Space Migration Is Our Only Salvation
Local Musician And Corporate Exec Work Together On Proposed Spaceport For The Average Citizen by Eoin O'Carroll
"I'm reading about satellites. I'm reading about companies," trills Elaine Walker's voice over a deep, warbling synthetic bassline. "I'm reading government policies. I've read about the shape of the universe." She's on stage at the Continental in Manhattan, wearing a very tight silver spacesuit. On either side of her, the other two members of Zia, the "pro-space" electronic band she founded in Boston 10 years ago, are striking circuit board MIDI triggers with drumsticks. "The vela supernova," Walker continues to sing as she slinks and bounces in time with the circuit-board percussion. "I've read about the Mars Lander Rover." As far as I can tell - I'm squinting at a Quicktime clip of the video on the band's website, www.ziaspace.com - Walker's bandmates seem to be clad in garbage bags and duct tape.
In a telephone interview, Walker said that the video was for a Spacewatch.com documentary. Since the website's audience tends to be older and more conservative than most New York clubgoers, Walker explained, "We didn't dress as sexy as we usually do."
With a repertoire of unearthly synth sounds and lyrics that advocate human expansion into outer space, Walker and her band have gained a following among astronomers, rocket engineers, and science fiction buffs. Walker has performed at several space conferences and sci-fi conventions around the country, and last year New York's Village Voice honored Zia with the title of Best Band to Belong on Mars.
When she's not performing, writing songs, or designing and building electronic instruments, Walker serves as president of the New York City chapter of the National Space Society, a nonprofit organization that promotes human space exploration.
According to her biography on Zia's website, Walker became interested in space travel in the early 90s, after graduating from Berklee College of Music. By the mid-90s she had begun attending lectures offered by the Boston chapter of the NSS, which elected her president after four months.
Walker moved to New York in 1999 to work on her Master's degree in Music Technology at NYU. Shortly after making NYC her home, she founded a new chapter of the NSS. It was in this role that she met entrepreneur Michael Urban, and his plan to build the world's first public spaceport.
"I got a phone call out of the blue," says Walker, recalling her first contact with Urban, the former chief technology officer of New York Life and project director of the New Jersey Public Space Center project.
Urban's vision seemed straight out of science fiction: a space center operating like an airport, offering to the public frequent flights into the Earth's orbit and beyond. Even more unusual was Urban's proposed site of Lakehurst, New Jersey. Other US spaceports, such as NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the privately-owned Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska, are located in sparsely inhabited areas, where many potential space tourists would have to travel long distances to reach their launch sites. Lakehurst, on the other hand, is a densely populated city, and can be reached fairly easily by the over 24 million residents in the surrounding region. Urban's proposed spaceport would be what he calls a "second generation" space center, designed primarily to launch people, as opposed to things.
The city, which is perhaps best known as the site of the Hindenberg disaster in 1937, is home to the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. The proposed Voyager Public Space Center would use a portion of the 7400-acre airbase, including its 12,000-foot test runway. Urban is currently in negotiations with the Navy about ceding parts of the base.
In order to realize his vision, Urban decided that he needed to be affiliated with a local nonprofit corporation that would oversee and manage the funding for the project. The National Space Society seemed like the ideal candidate.
Founded in 1974 by rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, the NSS has over 22,000 members in 75 cities in the United States and abroad. The society's stated goal, according to their website, http://www.nss.org, is for people to live and work in "thriving communities beyond Earth." The best way to achieve this goal, says the NSS, is by allowing private ownership of property in space and on other planets and by employing the "the 'free market' drivers of profit and competition". A commercial spaceport designed exclusively for human space flight, it seemed, would be exactly the sort of thing the NSS would advocate.
Urban found, however, that the national leadership of the NSS in Washington, DC and several other space advocacy organizations, could not move fast enough to work with him, so he turned instead to the New York City chapter of the NSS, headed by Elaine Walker. Walker agreed immediately, and the entrepreneur and the musician began working together to raise funds. Walker would serve as a promoter and accountant to Urban's spaceport project.
While the Voyager spaceport would certainly be the first of its kind, it can be seen as part of a larger global trend towards the privatization of human space travel. Many companies are expecting restrictions on space tourism to be relaxed in the coming years. US Airways, for example, recently announced that frequent fliers with 10 million miles can trade them in for a seat on the first flight taking passengers into suborbital space, scheduled for 2004.
Further down the road, Japan's Shimizo Corporation, the world's largest construction firm, has proposed building a $28 billion-dollar space hotel, which could be completed as early as 2020. Guests willing to pay the $45,000 for a round-trip all-inclusive ticket to the 64-room Tokyo Orbital International could enjoy the hotel's weightless squash courts and jacuzzis, as well as the undoubtedly breathtaking views from 300 miles above the Earth's surface.
While an orbiting hotel is decades in the future, space travel for pleasure is already a reality. In April 2001, Californian billionaire Dennis Tito made international headlines when he became the world's first space tourist. Tito rode in a Russian rocket to the International Space Station, where he spent eight days in the Russian module. A year later, South African Internet millionaire Mark Shuttleworth took a similar trip, this one lasting 10 days. Each reportedly paid the Russian Space Agency $20 million for the privilege. Currently, 23-year-old N'SYNC member Lance Bass is negotiating with the Russian Space Agency to become the youngest person ever to fly into space. NASA announced on August 8 that they have prepared a training package for the pop singer, should he be approved for the flight, scheduled for October 28 of this year.
Russia's Soyuz flights use expendable Proton-K rockets that lift off vertically, but the noise and pollution generated by these rockets would render them unacceptable for use in a metropolitan area. Both Tito and Shuttleworth blasted off in a remote region of Kazakhstan.
Instead of conventional rockets, the Voyager spaceport would use reusable launch vehicles that take off and land horizontally. Many current RLV designs use a modified Boeing 747 to tow the craft to about 20,000 feet. From there, the liquid oxygen booster rockets bring the craft to about 400,000 feet, where the rockets would detach and the craft would maneuver into orbit. For the return trip, the orbital craft lands like an ordinary airplane, using gas turbine engines. Two of these designs, which are being developed by Kelly Space and Technology and Kistler Aerospace Corp. will see their first launches as early as 2007. For his spaceport, Urban wishes to use a plane that incorporates several different designs. "I'm trying to build an alliance of vehicle manufacturers," he said.
In addition to orbital launches, the Voyager spaceport proposes to offer several other types of flights to the public. Parabolic - for "vomit comet" - flights, in which the passengers experience weightlessness as the plane dives, can be performed by ordinary aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration does not allow private zero-G flights in the United States, but a company called Space Adventures offers them in Russia for $5,400.
Urban's spaceport could also dramatically cut flight times. His proposal includes handling facilities for cryogenic fuel - liquid oxygen or hydrogen - which could be used in engines for hypersonic planes, which skim the Earth's upper atmosphere at about 100,000 feet. A plane is considered "hypersonic" if it can fly faster than mach 3, or 2,200 miles per hour. (The Concorde is merely supersonic, with a cruising speed of mach 2, or 1,350 miles per hour, and a cruising altitude of 50,000 to 60,000 feet). At mach 3, a flight from New York to Paris would take under 3 hours. The world's first hypersonic "scramjet" engine was successfully tested over the Australian outback on July 29, and Urban expects such flights to be commercially viable by 2010.
Another possibility for the spaceport is ballistic flight, which take suborbital flight trajectories to reduce flight times. A ballistic flight from New York to Australia could take less than 3 hours. Urban believes that commercial ballistic vehicles will be viable by 2015.
While these scenarios may seem far-fetched at first blush, Urban is convinced that this spaceport could work. According to Urban, interest in space tourism will soon be large enough to make a spaceport profitable. To make money for the short term, Urban plans to first build an educational "space park," which could include space flight simulators, tours and presentations, a hotel, and perhaps even a space camp. The space park could be up and running two years after the site is procured, and it could generate immediate cash flow until orbital, hypersonic, and ballistic vehicles are developed.
Urban's plan has also gotten a boost from Lockheed-Martin. The Maryland-based aerospace company has given a letter of endorsement to the space center project.
Despite the space center's potential to make money, several roadblocks lie ahead for Urban. Currently, space tourists occupy a sort of regulatory limbo - present regulations classify them as cargo. Even the location of space itself is ill defined. There exists no legal definition of where the atmosphere ends and where space begins. Many of the early space tourist vehicles will be flying in this gray area. Reams of new legislation will have to be passed, and Urban will have to get permission from several branches of the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Defense before any space tourists blast off from Lakehurst.
Urban believes that NASA could obstruct his plans, as the agency is reluctant to surrender its exclusive rights to human space travel from the United States. Urban is frustrated by what he sees as pork barrel politics, in which NASA's budget is squandered to satisfy local constituents, with little regard to developing a coherent national space policy. "I would say that NASA has, in general, become a sort of feeding trough," said Urban.
Despite these obstacles, Urban and Walker remain optimistic. Indeed, they both believe that expansion into space is critical for the long-term continuation of the human species. "I personally think the future of the human species is in space," said Urban. "It's the secret to the salvation of the human race."
For more info on the New York Space Society's efforts to bring space travel to the average citizen check out http://www.nssnyc.org. For even more information on the many organizations working along with the New York Space Society check out http://www.ziaspace.com