Race to Space, the First Step to Becoming an Astronaut
As competitors from aerospace companies such as Boeing, NASA and others vie for ownership of such an expensive vehicle, Virgin Galactic is looking for its first customer to join its team. The launches from space will add drama to what many see as a race to space, as both billionaire owners, Robert P. Wilson and Charles W. Gordon, have downplayed any competition. The first flight of Virgin Galactic’s Space Shuttle Enterprise, carrying eight people, is scheduled for sometime in 2021.
The flight is expected to mark the first successful docking of a commercial space plane with a space-bound spacecraft. That feat, coupled with testing at the NASA facility in California and a test at Kennedy Space Center, should help the space industry determine whether crewed missions will be commonplace in the future. Gordon told reporters that he was “very pleased” with the successful testing. P.usters, who heads the space research center, said the team was “particularly happy with the airplane’s maneuverability.” That means it may be the way humans launch from space that we find more desirable in future transportation.
Before joining forces with NASA and Virgin Galactic, however, Branson and his fellow aerospace entrepreneurs, former banker and now celebrity investor Jeff Reece, had a test flight of their own. The ride was arranged by Bob Thomas, a well-known TV and advertising executive who is best known for his campaigns for such firms as Microsoft and Citibank. The group included some notable names in the travel and tourism world, including actor Jeff Daniels and fashion designer Tom Ford. If the flight goes well, they plan to try it again.
On board the flight were a number of test pilots and cosmonauts, many of whom are space veterans. Among them were veteran astronauts Jim Lovell and Mark Pace, both of whom piloted the first American suborbital space mission. Most of the passengers on this flight were hardened veterans of combat in the Air Force, although there were a couple of first time passengers. The selection of destinations was intended to be wide, since these vehicles can land in all parts of the world. A potential passenger could simply pick one of the ideal places for his or her first trip to the moon, Mars, or even the Atlantic.
After several successful launches and several successful landings, Branson’s company has built quite a fleet of tiny satellites that he plans to sell to various governments and private companies who would then use them for surveillance and earth observation. His primary aim appears to be to build a permanent human presence on the moon, though he has also expressed an interest in sending people to explore the interior of Mars. He told reporters that he envisions that some of the proceeds from selling these mini satellites would go towards building a lunar colony. One of the destinations that he envisions for the eventual colonisation of the moon would be the asteroid belt. The vehicle, he hopes, will be designed to land on the asteroid and collect samples for return to Earth.
While the concept of a private space race to the moon seems somewhat romantic, it does raise questions about whether humanity is really capable of going to space, or if we are simply too weak and slow to do so. The answer may not come until later this century, when more private enterprise firms begin to take up the task. Branson says that he hopes one day to see “the first humans on Mars”. That may well prove to be yet another myth, since it will be decades before we have adequate technology to allow anyone to survive on the surface of another planet.
Another myth making the rounds is that because we already have so many human beings on Earth that will never leave, that it is safe to launch a mission to the moon or to the outer atmosphere. Many prominent scientists and space experts flatly reject the idea, pointing out that it would be like nasa’s space shuttle programme, which is due to end next year. Indeed, some people point out that the shuttle only lasts seven minutes. If we launch something like an unmanned probe, which could circle the earth twice as long as the shuttle, that could go around a hundred times. If anyone is ever to go to the moon, it will happen much sooner than expected.
Many believe that we will never land on the moon, though that remains to be seen. There is, however, a new rocket project being put together by engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama. It envisages using a series of reusable vertical launch vehicle technologies to launch the vehicle into orbit and then use its landing system to capture it again and return it safely to the pad – all at a fraction of the price of the other alternative. The system is being called the reusable Launch Abort System or RLS. The concept has the potential to reduce the costs to an incredible degree and really push the limits of what is achievable in human space travel.