Space tourism is great. It is wildly expensive though. In the early 2000s, Airbus had an idea to make it cheaper by actually strapping a transparent passenger capsule to the MiG-31 fighter jet.
There were a lot of periods described as “a gold rush in space’. We are experiencing one of them now, with private space exploration being one of the hot topics in the aerospace industry.
It did not as much start, as evolved from the previous “gold rush” in the early 90s – mid 2000s. As relatively cheap technology became available to westerners after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and before the spaceflight got deregulated in the United States in 2004, a slew of private ventures popped up, promising an exciting adventure beyond the atmosphere, and a trip to former Soviet Union to go with it.
EADS – the freshly formed European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company – at the time the manufacturer of Airbus aircraft and soon-to-be-renamed to Airbus itself, tried to jump on the trend. Its space-oriented subsidiary Astrium SI (later – EADS Space Transportation) conducted a series of studies exploring the market, evaluating competitors and looking for proposals that could rival them.
One of the most lucrative options to experience spaceflight at the time was offered by Space Adventures, the same company that sent the first tourist to ISS in 2001. In addition to providing a possibility to fly to orbit aboard the Russian Soyuz for $20 million, the company offered a cheaper option – a “flight to the edge of space” with MiG-25 fighter jet for just $10,000.
Mikoyan MiG-25 Foxbat, a Cold War-era Soviet interceptor, was one of the fastest combat aircraft at the time, and had one of the highest operating altitudes. In 1977, it set the yet-unbroken flight altitude record for air-breathing vehicles by climbing to 37,650 meters – more than three times higher than typical cruising altitude of an airliner. Beyond 30,000 meters, the sky turns black during the day and the curvature of the horizon becomes apparent, giving a rather perfect illusion of being in space. Add to that several seconds of free fall during the dive back, speed of Mach 2.5, and you have an experience to match any spaceflight at the fraction of the cost.
The problem is, MiG-25 has just two seats and one of them has to be occupied by an experienced pilot. In the 60s, there actually were some serious proposals to turn the Foxbat into an airliner by adding a small passenger compartment in the nose, but those never materialized. While such an exclusivity could be considered a feature, larger amounts of passengers would definitely bring larger profits.
Also, the flight was dangerous and required some serious training. The passenger had to learn all the emergency procedures and be prepared to eject if the ageing jet started misbehaving. Although there is no record of serious incidents, less serious ones happened rather often, as aircraft were bound to experience problems due to routinely operating at the edge of their possibilities.
There had to be a better way to exploit high-flying Russian jets. It came at the turn of the 2000s.
In 2001, Alexander Van der Velden and Holger Stockfleth, former of them – senior engineer at Astrium, filed a patent in Germany. A lengthy name of “Device for supersonic transport” does not really pay it justice, but the gist of the idea was to attach the aforementioned device to the back of high-performance jet aircraft. Add large plexiglass windows, a parachute for safety, and you have something rather promising.