Exploration has always been at the heart of what the human race does. Once upon a time, there was simply no way to take a boat from country to country and air travel was a distant dream. For most of history, travel into space has been an impossible reality. Today, more than a billion people drive cars, millions fly around the world on planes and soon hundreds – eventually thousands – will be blasting towards the stars upon what is perhaps Richard Branson’s most extravagant venture yet: Virgin Galactic.
Founded in 2004, Virgin Galactic is set to become the first private organisation to take paying tourists to the very edge of Earth’s atmosphere. Currently 600 people have signed up to ride the pioneering ‘spaceline’, each person agreeing to pay an astounding £250,000 for their adventure of a lifetime. To put this into perspective, as of 26 September this year, only 565 people have gone to space, travelling above the 62 mile-high Kármán line (the internationally recognised border of space).
For both America and Europe, the development of a commercial spaceliner is important to say the least. Since the termination of the Space Shuttle program, the only way for NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) astronauts to reach space has been aboard Russia’s Soyuz Spacecraft, with the two agencies paying up to $70 million per seat. Although Virgin Galactic won’t take future astronauts as far as the International Space Station, it will allow them to experience a few minutes of weightlessness before they plummet back towards the Earth’s surface. In 2014, NASA awarded a relatively small contract to Virgin Galactic, as part of which they will provide research flights to the agency.
As well as Virgin Galactic, other private companies are competing to be the first to put paying adrenaline junkies into space. The most ambitious is Elon Musk’s SpaceX, who last year announced they would send Japanese retail billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, along with eight artists from different fields, on a trip around the Moon aboard their awe-inspiring Starship. Each artist will produce a piece of work, be it a piece of music, a painting, or a film, that will aim to inspire an entire generation to fall in love with the idea of space travel.
Meanwhile, Amazon founder and current richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, is using his billions to fund Blue Origin in the hope it will soon use its own ‘New Shepherd’ spaceship to take paying customers into suborbital space. These space tourists will be able to experience weightlessness and view the blackness of space in a similar way to those onboard Virgin Galactic’s flights. Many people believe that this three-way ‘battle of the billionaires’ is leading to greater advancements in space technology than NASA or ESA can themselves produce. Private companies are now simply far more efficient than the large government-funded and politically controlled organisations that have previously sent humans to the Moon, and probes beyond our solar system.
Despite there being strong competition between organisations to provide human space flight, how Virgin Galactic will send humans into space is perhaps the most innovative. They will use a system consisting of a carrier plane, White Knight 2, which will carry their rocket, VSS Unity, up to a height of 50,000 feet before releasing it. The VSS Unity will then fire its rocket engine and almost immediately begin a near-vertical climb up to the edge of the atmosphere. After approximately 90 seconds, the rocket engine will cut out, and passengers will experience weightlessness for a matter of minutes before the spaceship begins its descent towards Earth. A unique feathering system will then act as an air brake. Once enough velocity has been lost, the feathering system will rotate into a more conventional configuration. The ship will function as a glider until it safely lands back on the runway of Virgin Galactic’s home base, Spaceport America.
As with any project of this ambition and scale, there are setbacks. In the case of Virgin Galactic, there have perhaps been far more than average. When he revealed the company in 2004, Branson stated that the first launch would take place in 2007. However, three workers died during an engine test that year. Since then, there has been a repeating pattern of delays slowing down the project. Another tragedy also hit Virgin Galactic in 2014, when a flight test led to a mid-air explosion which killed one pilot and seriously injured another. After that, engineers adjusted the craft’s design, and flight tests resumed in 2016.
In February this year, Richard Branson stated that he would go to space aboard his spacecraft within six months, another deadline that has since been missed. A year ago, Branson suggested that the timescales involved were months and not years. The reality is that the extreme complexity of suborbital space travel makes any prediction of the first commercial launch date impossible. However, there is no doubt that in the coming months and years, the number of people that do go to space will increase exponentially. Perhaps, one day, Virgin Galactic, along with its competitors, will make jumping on a spaceship and blasting towards the stars as routine as driving a car.
Featured image: Land Rover MENA (CC BY 2.0)