Russia was the first country to “officially” get into the space tourism business, and has given quite a few billionaires their dream vacation aboard the International Space Station. While they have supposedly made a pretty penny for their efforts, at $20-$30 million a pop, it’s a little hard to attract a steady stream of clients. Seeing the success of Virgin Galactic in getting seats filled, one Russian company has decided to emulate them by building a new space plane that will launch at high altitude from another jet. If that sounds suspicious to you, it may be because this is the very same company that ripped off the space shuttle.
The NPO Molniya Design Bureau was created in ’70s to build the Soviet Union’s extremely familiar-looking space shuttle, Buran. It has long been suspected, but never confirmed, that the Buran was a product of Cold War espionage. While the Buran only ever had one flight to space in 1988 before the program was cancelled, it did make history as the first and only space-plane-type craft to make a completely autonomous flight, orbit, and landing until the U.S. Air Force’s X-37b made its maiden voyage in 2010. Since then Molniya has mostly worked on guided weapons and had a short stint working on the secret Spiral space plane program before it was cancelled (which was, in itself, suspiciously similar to the work the U.S. was doing on the X-20 Dyna-Soar lifting body design; it seems originality just isn’t a hallmark of these guys’ work).
Molniya has partnered with Myasischev Experimental Factory in the effort to design and build a small space plane that sounds a little like Virgin Galactic’s Space Ship Two. While no specifics on the look of the design have been released yet, Space Daily reports that the craft will be launched from either a Russian M-55 Geofizika or a variant of the Myasischev M-4 bomber. The space plane will be capable of taking tourists on suborbital hops and launching small satellites at an altitude between 105 and 120km with the aid of a solid rocket motor.
I guess we’ll have to wait awhile to see whether or not Molniya is capable of launching an original design, but I’m going to go ahead and guess not.