After decades of promise, not to mention Popular Science articles going back into the ’50s, space tourism looks set to become reality. Mind you, that’s following many a false start, or prediction that has invariably come up short.
Leading the way into space for fee-paying tourists are two larger-than-life billionaires, Richard Branson (known for brands such as Virgin Atlantic Airways and, in this column, Virgin Galactic) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon, Whole Foods).
To be sure, tourists of a fashion have previously been to the International Space Station, at a hefty price tag measured in the tens of millions of dollars, and after going through significant training.
Presently there is a race underway to get a film crew and actors into space, aboard the International Space Station (ISS), for a cinematic spectacle of sorts. This race was triggered after it was revealed that Universal Pictures has budgeted $200 million for an unnamed space-themed movie featuring the Mission Impossible franchise star, and manifests showed that Tom Cruise and a director will be on an ISS-bound SpaceX Dragon craft in October.
This has apparently annoyed the Russian partners that operate the ISS with NASA and other agencies, and it now appears that a Russian actor and director will attempt to outdo Cruise et al. by arriving a few weeks earlier to film their own effort.
Based on a successful recent flight of its Unity craft from its new Spaceport America complex, it seems that Branson’s Virgin Galactic may be able to join Bezos and his Blue Origin / New Shepard project when it comes to getting well-heeled fee-paying tourists into space, and even for launching small satellites into earth orbit.
These two efforts are distinct from the much farther along SpaceX projects from yet another billionaire, Elon Musk. SpaceX is focused on commercial rocket launches using largely reusable craft and has secured contracts from NASA to deliver personnel and supplies to the ISS, among other projects, basically leading the way in returning crewed space launches to American soil for the first time since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011.
A similar effort to Branson’s Virgin Galactic is that of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. His Stratolaunch Systems Corp produced the world’s largest aircraft, by wingspan, with a view to lifting satellites and tourists into space from a high-altitude rocket launch system. Code-named Roc, the 117 m wingspan plane has flown just twice. With Allen’s passing, the Stratolaunch venture appears to have faltered, and may instead become a military platform for the launch of hypersonic craft.
As for Virgin Galactic, the publicly traded venture appeared to be on the ropes after various setbacks, including the loss of an early test crew in 2014 due to a co-pilot error, and more recently with an anomaly during a test flight. However, the most recent flight, in May, was apparently flawless, and just two or three additional flights will be required for certification by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Recent optimism over the Virgin Galactic program has driven up the company’s share price and has in essence brought space tourism back into public focus. For a number of years Branson has famously predicted that “next year” he’d be going into space on his company’s craft. There is the very real possibility, barring unforeseen setbacks, that he may indeed be able to fulfill that dream this year and then shortly thereafter begin cashing in the first of hundreds of bookings from those ready to part with “more than $250,000” for several minutes of sub-orbital flight.
Because the Virgin Galactic craft will travel beyond 50 miles (80 km) in altitude, a mark set for early American USAF pilots to earn astronaut wings, everyone in the well-appointed craft – with two-crew and up to six passengers – will be deemed an astronaut. For approximately six minutes out of the 90 takeoff-to-landing minutes the occupants will be effectively weightless. Notably, however, the Virgin Galactic craft is not expected to go beyond the so-called Karman Line, an invisible marker set at an altitude of 100 km, demarking the boundary between air space and space itself.
As for Jeff Bezos and his venture, the Amazon founder is stepping down from his CEO role at the retailing giant, presumably to focus on his own space ambitions. Blue Origin’s craft, named for American astronaut Alan Shepard, is much more like a traditional space capsule, sitting atop a reusable rocket. There is no crew, and the autonomous capsule can carry six passengers on a sub-orbital trip beyond the Karman Line.
If a jaunt into space is for you, and should a spare quarter of a million dollars (US, of course) be coming your way, both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have sign-up forms on their websites. Don’t forget to snap a photo from space for this newspaper!
At press time Bezos had just announced that he expected to be aboard the inaugural crewed flight of New Shepard, set for July 20. That has spurred talk that Branson, ever the showman, may try to be aboard his craft a few weeks earlier.
2021 is a pivotal year for the business of space tourism. Perhaps a decade from now we’ll look back and wonder why it took so long to achieve those dreams and visions of space travel for the masses, as depicted in Popular Science.
This Article firstly Publish on bccatholic.ca