Richard Branson The path into space turned out to be a little longer and more roundabout than he had expected.
The billionaire founder of the Virgin Group is set to make his fourth manned Virgin Galactic space flight on Sunday (July 11). SpaceShipTwo a suborbital vehicle, which the company plans to fully commission early next year.
Branson’s involvement will fulfill an often-repeated promise to be one of the first passengers to Virgin galactic launches the final frontier – a wishlist that should have been celebrated years ago.
Connected: How to watch Virgin Galactic launch Richard Branson into space
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Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 to build on the success of SpaceShipOne, a three-person reusable suborbital spacecraft built by Scaled Composites and funded by Paul Allen to win the $ 10 million Ansari X Prize for private space travel. Two years later he told CNN that he expected the company to begin transporting “ordinary people” to and from suborbital space in 2008 (Branson is far from ordinary by financial standards, but he is not a professional astronaut, so he fits the bill).
However, the target date continued to be pushed back as Virgin Galactic addressed various issues, including two fatal accidents. The first tragedy was the explosion of a test bed at Mojave Air and Space Port in California in July 2007, which killed three employees of Scaled Composites, the aerospace company that developed SpaceShipTwo with two pilots and six passengers.
The second occurred on October 31, 2014, during a rocket test flight of the first SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise. (Branson will fly in the second, VSS Unity.) The Enterprise collapsed in the skies over the Mojave, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and severely injuring pilot Peter Seabold.
Investigation established that Alsbury unlocked the plumage of the Enterprise re-entry system too early during the flight, which led to the death of the winged machine. VSS Unity has made design changes to prevent this premature nib deployment from happening again, Virgin Galactic said.
Competitor Blue Origin
Jeff Bezos, Virgin Galactic’s main competitor in suborbital space tourism. Blue origin, a landmark voyage is also approaching. Blue Origin is targeting July 20 for its first crewed mission, a suborbital ride, which will send Bezos, his brother Mark, pioneer pilot Wally Funk and the still mysterious auction winner up the air in the company’s New Shepard vehicle. (Blue Origin has yet to reveal the identity of the auction winner, who paid $ 28 million for his seat.)
Blue Origin did not have a single fatal accident, but its transition to crewed flight still took two decades; Bezos founded the space company in 2000.
This very brief history lesson confirms what Branson himself recently said. “Space is very difficult,” he said. told National Public Radio Leila Fadelduring an interview that aired on Wednesday (July 7). “Rocketry is very difficult.”
This is especially true of manned space travel, an area in which the slightest mistake or oversight can have disastrous consequences for both the people on board the spacecraft and the company that operates it.
This simple but important truth – space travel is difficult – can get lost in the noise of comments that have been piling up even before the flights of Branson and Bezos. Some of the analysis will get too hot, heralding the final dawn of a new commercial space age. Others will be too cold, calling SpaceShipTwo and New Shepard just toys compared to orbiting ships like SpaceX. Dragon Crew the capsule that has already delivered astronauts to the International Space Station three times.
An exciting but uncertain future
But it is unclear what our current moment really represents, and we will not know until several years of purging the smoke have passed.
It is possible, for example, that the suborbital space tourism market will not be large enough to support SpaceShipTwo or New Shepard in the long term. But it’s also possible that their ticket prices will drop fast enough to keep an endless number of customers in the flow – a future both companies predict. (The last announced price for a seat aboard SpaceShipTwo was $ 250,000. Blue Origin has yet to disclose its standard ticket price, but it is expected to also be in six figures.)
In short, the flights of Branson and Bezos are a window to a future that we do not yet see. You may have a strong opinion about this future, about how space tourism business and commercial space travel in general will or should develop. And that’s okay. But it’s also good to just sit by the window and wait with a cold drink in hand, glad that the curtains are drawn after so many years.
Mike Wall is the author of “There“(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Carl Tate), a book on the quest for alien life. Follow it on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.