Okay! You have already done Antarctica, seen the Northern Lights, been to the Galapagos, climbed Everest and Kilimanjaro, done wind-surfing and tried hang-gliding, even bungee-jumping perhaps. So how about a flight into Outer Space? For Silver Travellers? Well, at least you would be sitting down.
In early 2014, Sir Richard Branson is planning to taken his first six fare-paying passengers on board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo on a three-hour flight to experience weightlessness at an altitude of 62-miles – the edge of Outer Space. There, the passengers will get a very different view of the “Big Blue Marble called earth” – to quote one of America’s first astronauts.
But don’t rush. Those first six passengers have already booked their seats long ago at a reported cost of $250,000 each – and Virgin Galactic says they have a waiting list of over 300 people who have paid a deposit for their opportunity to fly into Outer Space.
This is serious business. Branson has already invested many millions into this project – including a state-of-the-art spaceport in Texas as his base – and he is not alone. There is a long list of mega-rich entrepreneurs who have seen space as the new frontier. And now the more traditional aerospace giants like Boeing in the USA and Astrium in Europe have unveiled plans as well. As these ventures progress and competition emerges over the coming decade, the price for a flight into space will come down dramatically.
We are all familiar with the exploits of NASA and the Russian agencies over the years to launch astronauts and cosmonauts to orbit the earth, then land on the moon and now operate the International Space Station. These were hugely expensive state-sponsored enterprises, and they still continue to explore our universe. However, the start of commercial spaceflight began with a competition in the USA called the X Prize in 2004, which offered $10-million for the first spaceship to be flown by a pilot to low earth orbit – and then to repeat the flight within 24 hours. It was won by SpaceShipOne, developed by a brilliant American aviation inventor called Burt Rutan. Soon afterwards, Richard Branson formed a partnership with Rutan and the Virgin Galactic enterprise began. They have developed SpaceShipTwo, which carries six passengers. At take off, it is carried between the twin bodies of a mothership called White Knight – and then at about 35,000 feet, the spaceship is released, fires its rocket motors and accelerates to its maximum altitude of 62 miles in a parabolic arc during which the passengers are weightless. The craft then descends and lands like an aircraft at the point where it started. And Branson’s company has already ordered a fleet of six spaceships.
The test flight programme of SpaceShipTwo has been completed and once other formalities have been carried out, a date will be announced for the maiden flight with fare-paying passengers (who will all sign waivers which protect Virgin Galactic and the US Government from any liabilities).
This will be the start of commercial space flight for passengers, but two other private companies – SpaceX and Orbital Sciences – have already started to use their newly developed spacecraft for the delivery of supplies to the orbiting International Space, replacing NASA’s fleet of Shuttles which have been taken out of service and now reside in museums. These two companies already have plans to build on their new expertise to move towards passenger-carrying spacecraft – and there is a long list of other wannabee private spaceflight companies.
And then there are those even more far-sighted engineers and entrepreneurswho look ahead to hotels in space, and to the use of new spaceflight technology to develop a generation of aircraft to take passengers from UK to Australia, for example, via space, in a couple of hours!
When? Who really knows – but once Virgin Galactic and its competitors get away from the starting blocks this could become the beginning of a whole new era of travel possibilities.
The full story of the privatisation of spaceflight is told in my latest book (co-authored with Dr. Joseph Pelton). The title is “Launching into Commercial Space” and it has just been published by the American Institute of Aviation and Astronautics as an e-book, available from Amazon for around £6.50. It is then scheduled for publication as a paper book early in 2014.