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Visualize future spaceflight

Virgin Galactic has released a video that tries to put its suborbital spaceflight experience into a wider historical context — wide enough to encompass the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, John F. Kennedy's "We Choose to Go to the Moon" speech and the whole Apollo moon effort. Oh, and you also get to go to company founder Richard Branson's Caribbean island resort!

You could call this a nine-minute history of the commercialization of space, or a nine-minute commercial. Either way, selling $200,000 tourist packages for quick trips to outer space represents one not-so-small step toward opening up the final frontier to regular folks.

So when will the first suborbital space tourists fly? That's still an open question, but flight tests of the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and its White Knight Two mothership have been under way for some time already. On Monday, White Knight Two took to the air for the first time since last month's landing-gear glitch. The next big step will be to drop SpaceShipTwo into the air for its first glide. The best guess is that Virgin Galactic's first passengers will get on board in New Mexico in 2012 or so.

That's in accordance with the two-year rule for future spaceflight. 2012 is also the year when Armadillo Aerospace and XCOR Aerospace could be offering suborbital rides, and when Blue Origin could be flying researchers and their experiments into space. How firm will those timelines be? Ask me again in 2012.

This week's announcement about a deal between the Boeing Co. and Space Adventures sets a longer time frame for orbital passenger service. 2015 is the current "no-earlier-than" date — not only for Boeing's spaceship, but for Bigelow Aerospace's commercial space stations as well. By that time the Russians could be back in the space-passenger business as well. Other potential players in the orbital passenger market include SpaceX, Orbital Sciences and Sierra Nevada — but right now those companies don't seem to be as focused on human spaceflight as Boeing is. (If I hear anything different, I'll let you know.)

Several other recent developments have hinted at the shape of spaceflight to come, at least as far as NASA is concerned:

• NASA has extended Boeing's engineering contract for the International Space Station through 2015, at a projected cost of $1.24 billion over five years. Boeing's Joy Bryant is quoted as saying the company's expertise can "set the stage to enable ISS operations until 2020, and potentially extend operations through 2028." That last date would imply a 20-year lifetime for the station, from the launching of the first pieces to the downing of the last hulk. In comparison, Russia's Mir space station lasted 15 years, from 1986 to 2001.

• Four companies are listed today in NASA's announcement of an umbrella contract covering up to $15 billion in launch services over the next 10 years: Lockheed Martin, United Launch Services, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX.

• The biggest question hanging over NASA's human spaceflight program relates to which vision for the program's future will prevail, at least for the coming fiscal year. It's clear that President Barack Obama's original plan won't make it through Congress, so it seems to be a choice between the Senate's version of the NASA authorization bill and the House's version. The Senate version is seen as friendlier to commercial space ventures (and the space agency's view as well), but this report from The Huntsville Times gives more exposure to the House version's backers.

• If this is the sort of thing that floats your rocket-powered boat, join me and host Jay Ackroyd tonight at 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT/SLT) on "Virtually Speaking," which is being simulcast on Second Life and BlogTalkRadio. We'll be talking about the future of NASA. Maybe you can even set me straight on what kind of future that will be....