Last July we saw Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos take off in a giant leap for the space tourism industry, but their launches to the edge of space weren’t particularly well timed. Amid a global pandemic and climate emergency, two billionaires taking space walks might not have been a good fit, but don’t underestimate what just happened – and to how important it could be for the future of humanity.
With the first crew launches of Virgin Galactic’s supersonic space plane and Blue Origin’s reusable rocket, a world of commercial space travel takes its first step. Both companies plan to start scheduled and scheduled trips for paid space tourists in the coming months, but their visions date back many years to the start of human spaceflight.
Bezos’ Blue Origin chose an auspicious day to send its first crew into space. July 20, 2021 was exactly 52 years after Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon. But it wasn’t the only major anniversary of space travel celebrated this year.
April 12 marked the 60th anniversary of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human not only to reach space, but also to orbit the Earth. Meanwhile, May 5 saw the 60th anniversary of NASA’s Freedom 7 mission, which launched Alan Shepard on a suborbital flight that lasted 15 minutes. He reached an altitude of 101 miles to become the first American in space before his capsule parachuted into the ocean.
The name of Blue Origin’s New Shepard launch system is no accident. Its mission profile is almost identical to the 1961 US inaugural space flight, except for the comfy billionaire-quality seats and large windows. From the first launch site near Van Horn in the West Texas desert, this rocket fires a capsule containing up to six people (but no pilot) into space, which is then parachuted 15 minutes later. . Blue Origin plans to conduct two more crewed flights this year, with many more slated for 2022.
The Virgin Galactic experience is different. Its SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity supersonic rocket-powered space plane can accommodate six passengers and two highly skilled pilots. It takes off on a Spaceport America runway near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, while attached to a mothership. At 52,000 feet, it detaches and burns its rocket motor for one minute to reach speeds of Mach 3 and touch the edge of space. After a few minutes of weightlessness (and a chance for passengers to see the curvature of the Earth against the blackness of space), it slips to land on a runway. Virgin Galactic intends to complete more test flights in 2021 and, in 2022, start working on its roster of more than 650 registered and paid “future astronauts”.
These short trips are expected to cost between $ 250,000 and $ 500,000, but in January 2022, expect to see a truly out of the ordinary private trip to space at an even more astronomical price tag. It will come from the other billionaire, arguably much more important in the space tourism bubble: Elon Musk. Axiom Mission 1 will see his company, SpaceX, launch four private astronauts on behalf of Houston-based space tourism company Axiom Space. An American real estate investor, a Canadian investor, a former Israeli Air Force pilot and a former space shuttle pilot will embark on an incredible orbital mission in his Crew Dragon spacecraft.
At $ 55 million per ticket, this is top-notch, ultra-ambitious space tourism. “The experience is radically different as they will be launched on a SpaceX rocket and travel to the International Space Station (ISS) for 10 days,” says Christina Korp, co-founder of Space for a better world. “They’ll do what real astronauts do, and I don’t think it’s an accident that Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flew before Axiom’s mission.” Axiom Space intends to launch a private space station – the first “space hotel” – as early as 2024 to provide space tourists a place to visit.
Branson and Bezos may have had the limelight lately, but Musk is the billionaire to watch in space exploration. He talks about Martian colonies and humanity stretching out into the cosmos, but since 2012 SpaceX has made a lot of money from NASA contracts to launch supplies to the ISS. Last summer he also started transporting NASA astronauts there. SpaceX’s spacecraft – currently under test – will land two NASA astronauts, the first female and the next male, on the moon in 2024.
You see, space tourism is just an accessory to a bigger and more worthy goal of saving the planet. Next year, Blue Origin plans to test its reusable New Glenn rocket – named after John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth in 1962 – which will be able to send cargo and astronauts into orbit. Bezos said he believes we need to go to space to save Earth, especially protecting the planet from pollution by moving heavy industry to space. This can only happen when space travel is safe, scheduled, and affordable. Space tourism will help create a competitive space economy, just as mass tourism has reduced the cost of flights.
Likewise, Branson’s goal is to increase access to space. “We are at the forefront of a new space age … Our mission is to make space more accessible to all,” he said after his maiden flight. A microgravity experiment was aboard this first flight on July 11, with similar plans for all subsequent trips. Meanwhile, Virgin Orbit’s sister company LauncherOne sends small satellites and science payloads into orbit via a small rocket launch under the wing of a Boeing 747.
The scientific benefits for all of us on Earth are currently unknown, but the space community has an incredible track record when it comes to innovation. “Clean energy like solar energy comes from the space program,” Korp explains. “Solar panels were invented to power satellites and refined to power spacecraft.” GPS cue, weather forecast, telecommunications and even Internet access. There are also fleets of satellites, large and small, that observe the behavior and evolution of our planet. “It’s the space industry that monitors climate change, tracks hurricanes and learns how to survive in the extreme environment of space – including experiments to grow food with almost no water, for example,” says Korp. Every space mission, including suborbital and even weightless flights, has environmental experiences on board by default.
“It’s not about escaping from Earth,” Bezos said after the flight. “The point is, it is the only good planet in the solar system and we have to take care of it.” Bezos wants to expand into affordable space travel. This will allow for long-term business ventures that ultimately could help prevent further climate change, or at least help us cope with its consequences.
However, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX won’t be the only ways to reach space. Russian space agency Roscosmos is expected to take “citizen space explorers” to the ISS soon, but the most affordable way to get “dark sky time” could be with Space Perspective, which will launch a pressurized capsule powered by an high performance space balloon. .
The six-hour flight will cost around $ 125,000 per person and will launch from Space Coast Spaceport in Florida in 2024. “Unlike short-lived moments of adrenaline-fueled weightlessness, Space Perspective flights bring you spatial calm. “said Jane Poynter, Founder, Co-CEO and CXO of Space Perspective. Flights on the Neptune spacecraft involve a gentle climb of just 12 miles per hour for a six-hour tour of the Earth’s biosphere, culminating with a view of our beautiful planet from space.
Space tourism is finally here. Instagram better get ready for the “Earth Selfies”.