A Chinese government-supported company is developing a space-plane, and intends to make it capable of carrying 20 passengers into space up to an altitude of 60 miles.
A ticket on the Chinese shuttle would be comparable to prices from space tourism plans by Virgin Galactic — probably around $200,000 to $250,000 — according to New Scientist.
China’s space plane will launch vertically from the ground and would be mostly reuseable, opening up space to tourists.
“The vehicle will take off vertically like a rocket and land on the runway automatically without any ground or on-board intervention,” Han Pengxin, the team leader of China’s Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, told New Scientist.
“The test flights will be finished in the next two years, because almost all of the ground tests have been finished and all the subsystems of the test vehicle worked very well … More and more common persons are interested in the experience of space flight,” Pengxin said.
If China succeeds, it will be the fourth country in history after America, the Soviet Union and likely India to operate a reusable shuttle. Only a small group of private companies such as Scaled Composites, Blue Origin and SpaceX have successfully operated a reusable spacecraft.
Reusable space technology like a shuttle is considered a major advance because it has the potential to significantly lower the costs of getting into orbit. Most of the cost lies not in the fuel, but rather the rocket components. India’s scientists estimate that the final version could make launching satellites 10 times cheaper than it is today. America’s Space Shuttle was only technically reusable because its giant fuel tank was discarded after each launch, and its side boosters were parachuted into corrosive salt water every flight, which required them to be extensively refurbished after use, making the space shuttle exceedingly expensive.
In recent months, China has significantly accelerated its efforts in space, launching its second space station and building the world’s largest radio telescope in September as well as deploying the world’s first hack-proof satellite in August.
China aims to land a solar-powered rover on Mars in 2020, and to become the first country to send an object to the dark side of the moon that same year. The country’s annual space budget is less than the U.S.’s, but most of NASA’s cash is spent on environmental issues and other fields not directly related to space exploration.
Meanwhile, Beijing has poured billions into such ambitious scientific projects and also has a military-backed space program. Expert witnesses at the congressional hearing repeatedly noted that the divide between China’s military and civilian space programs isn’t a strict one and that most space activities were ultimately controlled by the Chinese military.
China has already staged a spacewalk, landed a rover on the moon, increased its cooperation in space with Europe, and launched a demo space station all since its first manned space launch in 2003.
China has been heavily militarizing space as well. The communist country successfully targeted and destroyed one of its own satellites in orbit in 2007, and has likely tested a ground-based missile launch system to destroy objects in orbit in 2013.
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