Are Space Flights More Than Just Joy Rides For The Ultra-Rich?
On the 11th of July, while the world was battling a pandemic and people were doing their best to stay safe, Richard Branson, a team of 6 crew members boarded the VSS Unity spaceplane and took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
After achieving Mach 3 and being lifted by its carrier aircraft the VMS Eve, the spaceplane had a maximum altitude of 86 km. The crew were in weightlessness and had the view of a lifetime, harbouring a feeling that can only be described as out of this world, looking down on Earth post where they safely returned back to.
But why should you care if a crew is flying around space? Well, the trip involved the largest crew that Virgin Galactic has flown to the edge of space and hence, is a big deal because it opens the door to commercialize suborbital space travel. You read that right, your dreams of blasting rocketman while going to space could be coming true, all being initiated by Richard Branson.
But he is not the only one as Jeff Bezos just recently took a similar trip with his company Blue Origin. The trip and the space ship from the richest man on the planet is being compared to Dr Evil and his Instagram-infamous phallic shaped rocket but it’s a big deal for scientist and us alike!
The hills The space is calling!
These missions can kickstart not only space travel and its commercialization but also, be a starting point for more aerospace research. Since the 2000s, tourists have spent big bucks to travel to the International Space Station. NASA also has been an advocate for private companies to travel to the ISS and commercial crew flights that started in 2020.
Though NASA advocates for private companies to take over, companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have shifted their focus to suborbital space tourism. A few minutes to the edge of space can cost up to $200,000 which surprisingly is still luring aficionados like moths to a flame.
Seasoned names like Ashton Kutcher who bought a ticket aboard the Virgin Galactic Ship almost 10 years ago but returned it after his wife mentioned “It was not a smart family decision to go to space with young children”. There are said to be 600 people who have booked tickets for future flights.
Roadblocks in the industry
The biggest obstacle in this major industry is building a spaceship that is ready for tourists. Sadly, the millennial falcon is not available (trust us, we checked) hence why years of research and development has gone into developing a working prototype.
There was even a fatal crash in 2014 of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo that led to the death of a pilot. But, Virgin Galactic came back stronger than ever quickly pacing from test flights to actual flights with paying customers.
This also opens floor for scientists to do research that they couldn’t before. Previously unmanned flights were sent to space but now this provides researchers to fly alongside the ships and run experiments midflight. An example of this is the Unity 22 that was a manned spaceship the primary goal of which was to observe the gene activity of plants in a weightless environment.
Is space the future?
In theory, the future of this industry is lucrative but people are still unsure. The prices will slash with flights becoming more common but for now the industry is focused on the ultra-rich and researchers who have a backing.
Safety regulations needs more focus as currently in the US, the federal officials cannot regulate passenger safety in commercial spaceflight until 2023. So, even though this seems to be expanding and growing but still faces a few obstacles.
People are criticizing this trip as indulgence only for the ultra-wealthy and just a new form of adventure, mainly during this difficult time where people don't have the bare minimum.
In defence, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have emphasized that this is not a new plaything for billionaires but a scientific opportunity that can help innovate and advance research in the aerospace and scientific industry. “It’s not just a bunch of billionaires,” says Laura Seward Forczyk, founder of the space industry analysis firm Astralytical. “There is real science that can be done.”