Branson’s plans for “space travel” progress – for the privileged mega-rich
The plan to take tourists up on joy-rides virtually into space must be one of the most environmentally irresponsible around. Perhaps indicative of a society that has lost sight of the concept of living within environmental limits, using resources wisely, and not flaunting excessive wealth. But space travel is what Branson plans. It is reported that Virgin’s “Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo,” VSS Enterprise, has just completed its third test flight. It has now reached the altitude of 13.5 miles or 71,000ft, but in order to be considered to be at the edge of the earth’s atmosphere, it needs to get up to 62 miles or 328,084ft above the earth (called the Kármán line). These trips planned by Richard Branson are purely for “space tourists” and only those with exceptional wealth would be able to afford them, so it will be rich celebrities and rich business people only. The price is likely to be around £152,000 for a return ticket to the edge of space. Conspicuous consumption gone mad. This is a Branson PR statement: “2014 will be the year when we will finally put our beautiful spaceship in her natural environment of space.” They hope to reach the Kármán line this spring, and begin commercial operations later in 2014.
Will space travel become a reality for anyone but the privileged few?
Space tourism could now be just months away after Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo reached an all-time high of 71,000 ft
Within decades of the Wright brothers taking to the air for the first time in December 1903 commercial aviation was linking Auckland to Amsterdam and Zurich to Zanzibar as the jet age took off.
Now barely five decades after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin wrote his name into the history books commercial space travel will be linking earth to the ether.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, the craft entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson is hoping will soon herald a new age of pleasure trips around the cosmos, has just completed its third test flight.
But Sir Richard and his team still have some way to go to reach the Kármán line – the border where earth’s atmosphere ends and outerspace begins.
This lies 62 miles or 328,084ft above the earth – more than ten times higher than the flight path of the average passenger jet. SpaceShipTwo flew 13.5 miles or 71,000ft into the air recently – less than a quarter of the way to the Kármán line.
But Sir Richard has no doubt that before this year ends he, his adult children, Holly and Sam, and stars like Katy Perry and Justin Bieber will become the world’s first space tourists.
He said: “2014 will be the year when we will finally put our beautiful spaceship in her natural environment of space.”
And Jay Tate, director of Knighton’s Spaceguard Centre & Observatory, in Powys, has no doubt SpaceShipTwo will journey the remaining 48.5 miles to realise Sir Richard’s dream.
He said: “There is no reason why it shouldn’t – technically it’s not that terribly hard.”
Physically, the obstacles may be just a formality of running enough test flights to ensure everything is safe and ready to go. But financially space tourism is unlikely to see many of us enjoying the curve of the earth from the comfort of one of SpaceShipTwo’s seats any time soon.
At around £152,000 a return ticket to the edge of space is worth more than the average house in Wales.
But what of the future? Will anyone over 40 live to see the emergence of budget spacelines offering cut-price deals to the Kármán line? Trips where your soul-achingly beautiful view of the earth from 328,000ft is blocked by a morbidly obese man from Blackburn.
And where inspiration at a once-in-a lifetime experience enjoyed battles with relief that now you’re back on terra firma you can use the toilet.
Mr Tate believes it will be decades before competition sees space tourism become something other than a privilege only celebrities and the super rich can enjoy.
He said: “If commercial companies take it up then within a couple of decades or so we should be able to do that (go into space).”
Sir Richard is promising the craft will allow an “out-of-the-seat, zero-gravity experience with astounding views of the planet from the black sky of space for tourist astronauts and a unique microgravity platform for researchers”.
Since 2005 the company has accepted more than £42m in deposits from around 580 people, which is about 10% more than the total number who have ever gone to space.
Sir Richard, who owns Virgin Galactic with Abu Dhabi firm aabar Investments PJS, is v passengers five minutes floating around in space before they will return to earth.
Dr Xing Li, an Aberystwyth University expert on astrophysics and cosmology, said as a scientist it would be “beautiful” to be one of SpaceShipTwo’s privileged passengers.
But SpaceShipTwo travels at a super-sonic 2,500mph – more than four times faster than a passenger jet – and Dr Li believes it’s difficult to imagine anything that goes at that speed becoming affordable.
He said: “Now we don’t have supersonic flights because of the cost issue. At the moment I don’t see that it will be possible even in 30 or 40 years. It will only happen if we have some technological advance that would bring down the cost.”
Once operational Virgin Galactic believes it may fly up to 500 people in the first year to 18 months and 30,000 over 10 years. The firm plans to use a fleet of five models of SpaceShipTwo – with VSS Enterprise, named in honour of Star Trek, being the first.
Virgin Galactic say they would ultimately like to fly every day and even from the outset will journey into the heavens many more times than NASA’s Space Shuttle programme. But that shouldn’t be too difficult as in its 30 year history the shuttle programme ventured into space on average fewer than five times per year.
A spokesman said: “We should have flown as many passengers as every other space programme combined within a year or two of starting service.”
The firm hopes to reach the Kármán line by the spring, and begin commercial operations in the second half of the year.