WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
As the costs of accessing space fall we’re seeing the start of a new era in tourism – space tourism.
Late last Thursday a Virgin Galactic rocket plane blasted to the edge of space, capping off years of difficult testing to become the first US commercial human flight to reach space since America’s shuttle program ended back in 2011.
The test flight foreshadows a civilian space race that could kick off as soon as next year, with the British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic battling other billionaire-backed ventures to be the first to offer suborbital space flights to so called “space tourists” who’ll pay up to $250,000 per seat. Virgin’s airplane-like SpaceShipTwo took off from California’s Mojave air and space port, about 90 miles (145km) north of Los Angeles.
Richard Branson, wearing a leather bomber jacket with a fur collar, attended the take off along with hundreds of spectators on a crisp morning in the California desert. After the rocket plane topped 50 mile altitude – reaching what some agencies consider the edge of space – a crying Branson high fived and hugged spectators.
“Take off! WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo have taken to the skies,” Branson said on Twitter.
The high-altitude launch comes four years after the original SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight that killed the co-pilot and seriously injured the pilot, dealing a major setback to Virgin Galactic, a US offshoot of the London based Virgin Group.
“We’ve had our challenges, and to finally get to the point where we are at least within range of space altitude is a major deal for our team,” George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s chief executive, told reporters during a facilities tour on in Mojave, where workers could be seen making pre-flight inspections of the rocket plane.
While critics point to Branson’s unfulfilled space promises over the past decade, the maverick businessman told a TV interviewer in October that Virgin’s first commercial space trip with him onboard would happen “in months and not years”.
Thursday’s test flight had two pilots onboard, four NASA research payloads and a mannequin named Annie as a stand-in passenger, and the flight landed safely back on Earth just over an hour after it took off. Virgin Galactic said it reached a height of 51.4 miles, and travelled at 2.9 times the speed of sound.
More than 600 people have already paid or put down deposits to fly aboard Virgin’s suborbital flights, including the actor Leonardo DiCaprio and pop star Justin Bieber with a 90 minute flight costing a whopping $250,000.
But also vying for the space tourist crown are private space ventures such as the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin.
Short sightseeing trips to space aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket are likely to cost around $200,000 to $300,000, at least to start, Reuters reported in July. Tickets will be offered ahead of the first commercial launch, and test flights with Blue Origin employees are expected to begin in 2019.
In September, SpaceX said the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa would be the company’s first passenger on a voyage around the moon on its forthcoming Big Falcon Rocket spaceship, tentatively scheduled for 2023.
According to Virgin, SpaceShipTwo is hauled to an altitude of about 45,000ft by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane and released. The spaceship then fires its rocket motor to catapult it to at least 50 miles above Earth, high enough for passengers to see the curvature of the planet. The 50 mile mark will also high enough to allow the world’s first space tourists to earn their astronaut wings from the US Air Force and the US Federal Aviation Administration, although other agencies define space as beginning at 62 miles above Earth.