WASHINGTON — In November 2008, five years after the Concorde made its final trans-Atlantic flight and four years after SpaceShipOne became the first privately financed vessel to fly a human to space, Atlanta-based aerospace consultant John Olds founded the FastForward Project: a forum for serious discussion about the commercial application of ultra-high-speed, point-to-point flight.
Today, Fast Forward counts 52 members from 30 companies, including aerospace heavyweights Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, and startups such as XCOR Aerospace and Blue Origin.
FastForward’s doors are open to advocates of any point-to-point system: supersonic, hypersonic, suborbital or exclusively atmospheric flight. Likewise, the group courts not only engineers and scientists but spaceport operators, legal scholars and international space policy experts, Olds said.
“It’s a group of interested parties that have come together to share ideas, to build consensus, to try to maybe influence, educate the public and try to get some momentum going on a common vision,” said Kevin Bowcutt, senior technical fellow and chief scientist of hypersonics at Boeing Phantom Works in Huntington Beach, Calif. “And the common vision here is rapid global transport.”
Bowcutt’s work has aided development of high-profile experimental flight hardware including the Air Force’s X-51 scramjet-powered WaveRider, which is designed to operate at speeds exceeding 5,000 kilometers an hour.
Bowcutt proposes an advanced version of this experimental craft, which has had a checkered flight history, as the cornerstone of a future point-to-point transportation system.
Such a vehicle, which would hop in and out of the atmosphere during its journey, would not be commercially viable without some advances in both scramjet technology and materials, Bowcutt said.
“It could in the end be better, for various reasons, flying through space to get from point A to point B,” Bowcutt said in a Sept. 11 interview.
For now, the point of the FastForward Project, one of four side projects managed by Olds’ Atlanta-based consulting shop SpaceWorks Enterprises, is to give members like Bowcutt a chance to talk with one another. Members seldom meet in person, but the group hosts an hour-long telephone conference every two months.
Recently, the FastForward Project got on the radar of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Olds is scheduled to introduce Oct. 9 his ad hoc think tank to the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, a group of policy advisers for the agency’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. This office already licenses commercial space launches in the U.S. and will soon regulate private passenger spaceflight.
For now, FAA is mostly barred from regulating privately operated passenger spaceflight until 2015. The Office of Commercial Space Transportation is in the early stages of a fact-finding mission with the burgeoning suborbital flight industry. Like FastForward, FAA officials are bringing industry experts together for periodic teleconferences, the first of which was in August. FAA officials plan to publish the first of several summaries about these industry dialogs in October.
The private space companies the FAA will eventually regulate are the leading edge of a future point-to-point industry, Olds said. However, they are still a long way from fielding the kind of vehicles needed to move people and products across great distances at high speed.
For example, Virgin Galactic, the New Mexico-based space tourism company that is closest to flying paying customers to space, does not expect to begin commercial operations until late 2013. At $200,000 a seat, Virgin’s air-launched SpaceShipTwo will fly seven passengers at a time to the edge of space and return to the same runway from which its carrier ship takes off.
If Virgin Galactic and others can make a profit while flying rocket-powered spacecraft on a regular basis, they will retire some of the risks associated with longer-duration flights, Olds said.
“We think that by extending that [space tourism] market to be a point A to point B market while still catering to an elite class of travelers who can afford a significant premium, and by connecting the network of spaceports that’s emerging globally, there could be a first-generation point-to-point market within the next 10 years,” Olds said. “It’s a market that isn’t for the masses by any means, but of course neither is space tourism.”
Olds also acknowledges that it is still not clear whether shortening cruise time in the air, even dramatically, would get people and products to their destinations much quicker than today’s airplanes, given inevitable delays at airports customs checkpoints.
Even if people are excluded as payloads, future point-to-point systems would not be viable if they can get cargo to a shipping hub only a few hours faster than conventional cargo aircraft, Olds said.
He has good basis for that statement, having met years ago with executives from global shipping giants UPS Inc. and FedEx Corp. — which operate two of the largest air networks in the world — to discuss the ramifications of ultra-fast air transport for global package delivery.
Today, according to a UPS spokeswoman, the ramifications are not very significant even for supersonic aircraft, let alone space faring hypersonic craft of the sort advocated by Bowcutt at Boeing.
“We have an awareness of what’s out there, but it’s not really in our direct planning set,” UPS spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg told Space News Sept. 11. “We’ve never had any internal projects that have looked at hypersonic or supersonic. There’s nothing under way.”
Nevertheless, Scott Roby, UPS’s director of corporate strategy, was happy to share information about the company’s air network with Olds in 2009. Olds folded that data — along with similar data from UPS’s main competitor FedEx — into something called the Global Hypersonic Shipping Time Calculator: a spreadsheet-based tool that lets users see how quickly cargo can be moved between key shipping points on the globe using hypothetical high-speed transport systems.
“It has to do with comparing flight times to competing services from UPS and Federal Express and what the different pickup and delivery times are worldwide and what kind of flight speed it takes to beat that by an entire day’s worth of service, or an afternoon’s worth of service,” Olds said.