Is Space Travel Only For The Rich? If So, Who Cares?

The creator of SpaceShipOne says private space flight’s about to take off.

I have written several articles on postings related to Big Tech, Social Media and Corporations. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address different aspects on these Industries.

At the dawn of a new era, SpaceShipOne is minutes away from being released by its launch aircraft. White Knight, on September 29, 2004. With pilot Mike Melvill at the controls, the pioneering civilian rocket would climb to more than 62 miles (100 kilometers) in the first of two flights to win a ten-million-dollar prize.

To me this would be the fulfillment of a childhood dream.

Just before sunrise on October 4, as the launch vehicle White Knight—with SpaceShipOne tucked neatly under its belly—was poised to taxi onto the runway at Mojave Airport in California, I stuck my head inside the tiny graphite-and-epoxy rocket to give pilot Brian Binnie a few last words of advice. I knew that Brian, an avid golfer like me, would get my meaning. “Use a driver,” I said. “Keep your head down and swing smooth.”

My message: Shoot for the greatest possible performance, but also strive for accuracy. Brian’s job wasn’t going to be easy. To qualify Space-ShipOne for the ten-million-dollar Ansari X Prize, he had to fly himself and the equivalent of two passengers—a total of 595 pounds (270 kilograms)—to an altitude of at least 100 kilometers (62.1 miles) and return for a safe landing. We’d measured his payload precisely. But nobody had planned on Brian’s mother-in-law contributing a last-minute surprise. As Brian got ready to enter the cockpit, she gave him a big hug, spilling a cup of coffee all over his flight suit.

“I got soaked,” Brian said. “I later figured those extra 12 ounces (0.35 liters) probably cost me 200 feet (61 meters) of apogee.”

We were used to surprises by then. Five days before, test pilot Mike Melvill had taken SpaceShipOne to more than 337,500 feet (102,870 meters)—the first of the two suborbital spaceflights required within two weeks to win the X Prize. But as Mike had rocketed toward the edge of space, SpaceShipOne had started spinning at an alarming rate. Mike was never in any danger, but the unexpected rolls left us scratching our heads.

For the next two days none of us got much sleep. We eventually hypothesized that the rolls were caused by a lack of directional stability as the rocket left the atmosphere. Mike may also have been pushing a little too hard on the rudder pedal. The incident led me to ask if I might be pushing too hard as well. I gathered the team together 48 hours after Mike’s flight to see if they were ready to try again. Their response: a wholehearted yes.

As the designer of both SpaceShipOne and White Knight, I had a lot riding on our team’s success. Not only did I hope to bring home the X Prize, I also wanted us to prove that privately built spaceships could achieve what the U.S. government has not: develop technology to make spaceflight affordable and safe for the masses.

To me this would be the fulfillment of a childhood dream. I was 14 years old when Sputnik was launched into orbit, and I convinced myself, naively, that the space race would one day punch my personal ticket to the stars. Someday, I told myself, I too would be able to hop aboard a spacecraft and rocket into orbit, even vacation on the moon. By the mid-1990s, however, I’d realized that waiting for NASA wasn’t going to work. The government’s attempts to reduce the cost of space access had led to billions of dollars being spent on design studies and a few research craft. If my dream was going to come true—of floating weightless in the black sky and being thrilled by the sight of Earth from outside our atmosphere—I’d have to get things started myself.

I was encouraged to do this by the history of aircraft design itself. Five years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, in 1903, the airplane was still just a dangerous curiosity. Only a dozen or so people had ventured into the air. Yet by 1912 hundreds of pilots had flown a number of different designs developed around the world, with crashes weeding out the bad ideas. Soon factories in France, England, and Germany were producing hundreds, and then thousands, of airplanes a year. Why? I believe the answer lay in two observations: “That’s gotta be fun” and “maybe I can do that.”

Clearly, if private spaceships were going to be built, they would also need to be created for fun by those discovering that “maybe I can do that.” My theory was about to be tested as I stood inside our mission control room at Mojave Airport. By now White Knight had carried SpaceShipOne to its launch altitude of 47,100 feet (14,356.1 meters). The moment of truth was at hand.

Inside White Knight, flight engineer Matt Stinemetze released SpaceShipOne from its hooks, and Brian Binnie, inside the smaller rocket ship, called out “arm and fire.” The motor ignited and 18,000 pounds (8,164 kilograms) of thrust threw Brian back in his seat at three times the force of gravity.

In about ten seconds he broke the sound barrier and began a steep climb that would take him into the record books: Not only did he fly smooth and true, he also broke the unofficial world altitude record set 41 years before by the North American X-15. And he broke it by 13,000 feet (3,962.4 meters)! Brian topped it all off with a picture-perfect landing at Mojave Airport 24 minutes after he had ignited SpaceShipOne’s rocket engine.

Winning the X Prize didn’t mark the end of our fairy tale; it was merely a very good beginning. I’m committed to continuing research into suborbital flight to ensure that it can be done far more safely than any past manned system. Affordability is necessary too, so that many thousands can fly, not just ten or so astronauts or cosmonauts a year. I know this will be a challenge; we need major technological breakthroughs to make such visions come true. But the same could have been said of SpaceShipOne a few years ago—and look at how far we’ve come.

Already, Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group, has announced that he will license the SpaceShipOne technology from investor Paul Alien, who has financed my endeavor all along. Branson is investing about a hundred million dollars to create the world’s first spaceline, Virgin Galactic. My company, Scaled Composites, will work under contract to Virgin to build the first few spaceships, which may begin commercial operations by the end of the decade

And guess who will be on that first commercial flight? Yours truly. But we won’t stop there. Branson has stated that he plans to reinvest his Virgin Galactic profits to continue funding research that will result in new flight systems that could take people to orbiting hotels or a lunar landing base. And guess who will be on one of those flights? You. Or perhaps your children. If you’re a space dreamer like me, then believe it when I say that you’re waking up to find that it’s really happening.

More than 46,000 feet above the stark New Mexico desert, a white and silver space plane rocketed toward the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, riding on a fiery plume of burning laughing gas and solid rubber fuel. A few minutes later, the craft’s two pilots and four passengers, including billionaire Richard Branson, floated more than 53 miles above our planet’s surface: high enough to see Earth’s curvature and to slip the bonds of gravity, for a few minutes at least.

That gleaming craft—Virgin Galactic’s V.S.S. Unity—launched mid-air from a larger carrier aircraft to reach more than 53 miles skyward. As it completed its ascent, it rotated its twin tail booms, reconfiguring the vehicle to allow it to slowly fall through the upper atmosphere like a badminton shuttlecock. Fifteen minutes after separating from the mothership, V.S.S. Unity glided down to a landing strip back in New Mexico and rolled to a stop.

“It’s the complete experience of a lifetime,” a jubilant Branson said as V.S.S. Unity made its descent.

Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson and other passengers wait for the VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital rocket-powered space plane, to be released from the mothership.
Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson and other passengers wait for the V.S.S. Unity, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital rocket-powered space plane, to be released from the mothership.PHOTO FROM VIDEO BY VIRGIN GALACTIC

The mission, called Unity 22, marks the largest crew that Branson’s company Virgin Galactic has ever flown to the edge of space. The spectacle also served as a highly public milestone in the push to commercialize access to suborbital space, for pleasure and for profit. Virgin Galactic’s spaceflight—its fourth with humans aboard—comes just nine days before billionaire Jeff Bezos is slated to fly on New Shepard, a suborbital rocket built by his company Blue Origin.

“The fact that the founders of these companies are going to fly on the official first missions of these things is pretty stunning to me,” says space historian Jennifer Levasseur, a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “It’s obviously investing an incredible amount of faith in what you’ve put together, the people and the technology—and, you know, there’s that inherent sense of adventure in each of them that makes the risk worth it.”

Both companies have been criticized as vanity projects and luxuries for the ultra-wealthy. Virgin Galactic had been charging $250,000 per ticket in its advance sales but has since said it will raise the price. Blue Origin hasn’t started selling seats on New Shepard, nor has it released its ticket prices, but in a June auction, a ride on the upcoming flight with Bezos sold for $28 million.

Beyond the glory-seeking exploits of the rich, though, new space vehicles like SpaceShipTwo and New Shepard could provide a unique platform for aerospace and scientific research.

“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.”

Space tourism

Private forays into space aren’t anything new. Since 2000, several deep-pocketed tourists have spent tens of millions of dollars to fly to the International Space Station. In addition, NASA has gradually encouraged private companies to take over U.S. launches of cargo and astronauts to the ISS. Commercial cargo flights for NASA began in 2012, and commercial crew flights began in 2020.

But for years, companies such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have been working on a different kind of spaceflight: suborbital space tourism. Soon, anyone with hundreds of thousands of dollars to burn could strap in and take a minutes-long trip to the edge of space.

While the internationally recognized boundary of space is generally considered to be 62 miles (100 kilometers) in altitude, known as the Kármán line, the United States uses 50 miles (80 kilometers) as the cutoff point. Today’s Virgin Galactic flight reached 282,773 feet (about 53.5 miles or 86 kilometers). The July 20 Blue Origin flight is expected to go about 65 miles (105 kilometers) high.

Building new spacecraft for tourists has proven extremely difficult, requiring years of testing and resulting in sometimes deadly incidents—notably a fatal crash of a prototype SpaceShipTwo rocket plane in 2014.Now, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are transitioning from test flights to commercial trips with ticketed customers, with both companies’ billionaire founders riding their firms’ vehicles to space.

For Virgin Galactic in particular, it’s been a long road to get to this point. The company’s space plane has its roots in a program that began in the mid-1990s.

A new space plane

Unlike traditional crewed rockets that launch from the ground, SpaceShipTwo launches from mid-air. A mothership called WhiteKnightTwo carries the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane to an altitude of more than 40,000 feet. SpaceShipTwo then drops from the bigger plane’s underbelly, ignites its rocket engine, and flies toward the edge of space at a steep incline, traveling roughly three and a half times the speed of sound.

Launching a rocket plane from mid-air might sound like a complex way to get humans into space. But “air-launch” comes with several advantages, says Chuck Rogers, a deputy branch chief at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. The technique has been explored over several decades of flight research, including the X-1, the first plane to break the sound barrier, and the X-15, still the fastest piloted plane ever flown, topping out at 4,520 miles an hour during a 1967 flight.

Launching from mid-air can be highly efficient because the spacecraft doesn’t have to trudge through the dense lower atmosphere under its own power, meaning it can carry less fuel. And by using a space plane, the vehicle can take off and land at a long conventional runway, reducing the need for additional launchpad infrastructure.

Design work on SpaceShipOne, the experimental predecessor to SpaceShipTwo, started in 1996, with the announcement of the Ansari X Prize. That contest offered $10 million to the first fully private team to fly a spacecraft more than 100 kilometers above Earth’s surface twice in two weeks by the end of 2004, all while carrying a pilot and two passengers’ worth of weight.

The competition’s early favorite was Burt Rutan, an iconoclastic engineer renowned for his quirky, extremely efficient airplane designs. For his X Prize entry, Rutan settled on an air-launch design with a unique approach to descent: Just before SpaceShipOne reached its highest altitude, the craft’s two tail booms would hinge upward by 65 degrees like hackles on a dog’s back. This “feathering” system greatly increased the craft’s drag during descent, slowing it down to the point where it could safely fall through the atmosphere, retract the tail booms, and then glide to a runway for landing.

Progress on the space plane was slow until Rutan and his company Scaled Composites got an investment from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 2001. In June 2004, SpaceShipOne became the first privately funded vehicle to enter space. Less than four months later, the space plane flew twice beyond 100 kilometers and won the X Prize.

“It was the perfect flight,” says test pilot Brian Binnie, who flew the prize-winning second flight on October 4, 2004. “I still feel it today—it’s like I wasn’t alone, that there were some other forces at play.”

Following SpaceShipOne’s X Prize success, Branson licensed Rutan’s designs for Virgin Galactic with the goal of scaling them up to a larger, multi-passenger vehicle: SpaceShipTwo.

SpaceShipTwo’s long road to flight

SpaceShipTwo is roughly twice as big as its predecessor, but it brought more than twice the headaches. The vehicle’s bigger size required redesigns of the mothership and the space plane’s rocket motor, among other technical snafus, causing delay after delay.

Two deadly accidents also struck the SpaceShipTwo team. In 2007, three people died in an explosion before a rocket motor test. And on October 31, 2014, a SpaceShipTwo prototype broke apart mid-ascent after one of the pilots unlocked the craft’s feathering system early. Copilot Michael Alsbury died in the resulting crash, and pilot Peter Siebold suffered serious injuries. The 2014 accident reportedly shook Branson, but Virgin Galactic ultimately decided to continue.

“I give Branson full credit for staying the course; he had plenty of opportunities to back out of this business,” says Binnie, who worked on SpaceShipTwo until 2014. “It sounds so glamorous to get into the rocket business, but … when the rubber meets the road, it’s a real gut check.”

After years of safety upgrades, two pilots in SpaceShipTwo first crossed the 50-mile threshold in 2018. In 2019, the craft did it again, this time with a passenger: Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor.

“It was magnificent. It was indescribable,” Moses told National Geographic in a 2019 interview. “It’s an amazing, amazing, sort of mildly intense, wonderful experience.”

In May 2021, Virgin Galactic completed its third flight above 50 miles, which led the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to issue the company a full commercial license. The test paved the way for today’s Unity 22 launch—and gave the company enough confidence in the system to let Branson himself aboard.

Science on the edge of space

Much of the discussion around Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin has focused on the race between Branson and Bezos. But as these dueling billionaires fly toward the heavens, the vehicles their companies have built have enabled new kinds of research.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flights offer about three to five minutes of continuous weightlessness. Scientists have been able to access suborbital space before, but primarily via uncrewed spacecraft. With these new vehicles, researchers are able to fly alongside the experiments and run them mid-flight.

Already, the two companies have flown science payloads and tech demonstrations, with the support of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. The Unity 22 flight included a human-tended experiment that recorded changes in plants’ gene activity just as the plants started to experience weightlessness, designed by the University of Florida and run by Virgin Galactic employee Sirisha Bandla.

Past experiments on the space shuttle and the ISS have recorded in detail how life functions in microgravity. But biochemically, how do living things transition from feeling Earth’s gravity to weightlessness? Scientists have no idea. But suborbital flights like Unity 22 provide a unique opportunity to study the question, says University of Florida biologist Rob Ferl, the experiment’s co-principal investigator. 

“We’re the scientists who get to simply open the door on this biological universe that’s never been looked at before,” Ferl says.

The future of suborbital flight

Even if Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin fly their booked customers and garner research contracts, space industry analyst Forczyk cautions that we still don’t know how big the suborbital market will end up being.

In theory, ticket prices will come down as flights become more common. But for now, the infant industry is targeted primarily at the ultra-wealthy, their guests, and funded researchers. As the technology matures, Forczyk says, we will find out whether the billionaire-driven spaceflight companies can deliver on their promise of “democratizing space,” or if suborbital thrill rides will remain an extreme luxury.

The future of private rides to the edge of space will also depend on how safe the vehicles prove to be. Under current U.S. law, federal officials are limited in their ability to regulate passenger safety in commercial spaceflight until 2023. “I don’t think anyone is fooled into thinking that this is going to be a risk-free environment,” Forczyk says. “I think we should anticipate and expect fatal accidents to occur.”

But even if incidents slow development, consumer access to suborbital space and beyond will likely continue to expand. “I would probably look at it more as the end of the beginning,” says Smitsonian historian Levasseur. “Spaceflight is never going to be routine; this is not a routine process … [But] we’re entering a new phase of regularity.”

For Binnie, seeing SpaceShipTwo take to the skies brings him back to the legacy of the prototype rocket plane he flew to a record 367,500 feet.

“SpaceShipOne, I’m thankful to say, is not gonna be a one-off vehicle hanging in a museum,” he says. “It’s actually going to be the catalyst for something better, brighter, bigger.”

Billionaires Spending Their Own Money To Go to Space Has Progressives Howling for a Wealth Tax

Private space companies’ efforts are a boost to the government’s own space programs, in addition to being objectively cool.

reason-branson

(Cover Images/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom)

The idea of billionaires launching themselves into space on their own rockets has provoked apoplexy from some progressives, who view the spectacle as an ostentatious display of economic inequality that must be fixed with a wealth tax.

Witness the response to Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson’s successful journey to the edge of space yesterday on his company’s Unity spaceship.

The flight—which carried Branson and five other crew members more than 50 miles above the Earth’s surface—represents an important milestone for the nascent private space tourism industry. But several commentators were only concerned with what the British billionaire’s money could have funded instead.

Journalist Teddy Schleifer said on CNN that the press should cool its jets when covering billionaires’ space travels, saying that “it’s impossible to talk about the billionaire’s success without talking about the system that creates this in the first place.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (D–Calif.) asked, a few days before Branson’s launch, whether that money could be spent on health care and education rather than “space travel fantasies.”

Khanna doesn’t see such a stark trade-off with the government’s own resources, given his co-sponsorship of the “Endless Frontiers Act,” the initial version of which would have given $100 billion to the National Science Foundation to research such sci-fi ideas as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Surely that money could be spent on health care too? And Khanna is a member of Congress’ “NASA Caucus,” so he isn’t objecting to spending money on space exploration per se.

In any case, billionaire-backed space companies—which includes not just Branson’s Virgin Galactic but also Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX—can help to eliminate wasteful space spending. That’s certainly the case with SpaceX. Back in May 2020, the company’s Crew Dragon vehicle ferried NASA astronauts to the International Space Station from American soil for the first time since 2011, when the accident-prone Space Shuttle was retired.

To develop and launch Crew Dragon, SpaceX received a $2.6 billion contract from NASA through the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. In comparison, the Constellation program run directly by NASA—which had a similar goal of developing a launch system for putting astronauts in low-earth orbit—was estimated to cost closer to $34.5 billion.

SpaceX was “effectively doing what the Constellation Program was doing with about the same amount of money, total, that they were burning in a single month,” NASA engineer Mike Horkachuck told ArsTechnica‘s Eric Berger.

Karl Marx once said that “all great world-historic events and personages appear twice… the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” He was thinking of Napoleon I and Napoleon III, but here’s another pair: Captain Scott and Jeff Bezos.

On 17 January, 1912, Scott and his men arrived at the South Pole — only to find that Roald Amundsen had got there first. Turning back in defeat, they perished on their way home.

Let’s wish Jeff Bezos better luck, because next Tuesday he, too, is making a perilous journey. On that day the richest man in the world — net worth $177 billion — will zoom into space aboard his own rocket. But, unlike Scott, he sets off knowing he’s been pipped to the post, the Amundsen in this tale being Britain’s beloved train controller Richard Branson, just back from a jaunt to the cosmos on his Virgin Galactic spaceplane.

Except that Blue Origin, the Bezos space company, isn’t having it. They say that outer space starts at the Kármán line — an altitude of 100 kilometres. Because Branson didn’t go quite that high, his trip doesn’t really count. 

The Kármán line, though, is arbitrary; the Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t suddenly stop at a suspiciously round number, it fades out. One can set the boundary a bit lower (as the US Air Force does) — in which case Branson did go into space. 

If this spat looks like a “pissing contest” (as a Virgin Galactic test pilot put it in a since-deleted tweet) then that’s because it clearly is. Space travel is becoming the ultimate positional good — and space ships the playthings of billionaires. With the relative decline of nation-states and the rise of the super-rich, perhaps this was inevitable; after all, people have often described the wealthy as seeing the world from 30,000 ft, so why not 300,000?

It’s significant, however, that Bezos should be the one leading the way, not just because of his vast riches, but for the means by which he made them. The immense gulf between him and his deunionised, demoralised workers has now acquired full physical expression.

It’s not just Bezos and Branson duking it out. The second richest man in the world, Elon Musk — worth a mere $150 billion — also has a rocket ship venture, SpaceX. Musk has been admirably frank about the whole thing, telling volunteers that a few of them may die in the process, although Elon also hopes to send a million people to Mars.

Even this parade of egos is humble compared to the man really responsible for the space race, Donald Trump, at least in his own mind. “I made it possible for them to do this”, the former president modestly observed in a recent interview. He has no plans to go into space himself, however. 

Space tourism dates back to the year when hyper-globalisation began, 2001. It was then that Dennis Tito became the first to pay his way to the stars, hailing a ride with the Russians. But with Branson’s successful flight, space tourism is now set to become a growth industry; Virgin Galactic is said to have pre-sold 600 seats, and prospective passengers reportedly include Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber. 

All rockets have a Freudian quality, due to the very nature of physics, but the shape of the New Shepard is so rude it could have been designed by Joe Orton.

For all the theatrics, however, this isn’t just billionaire boys and their toys — they’re actually making important breakthroughs, especially on cost. The key challenge with space is not how far away it is, but that it’s directly above us. Lifting mass against the gravitational pull of the Earth requires a huge expenditure of energy and therefore cash. 

A key metric is how much it costs to lift one kilogram into low Earth orbit (LEO). According to Wendy Whitman Cobb, a space policy analyst, the “cost to LEO” between 1970 and 2000 was about $18,500 per kilo, while America’s Space Shuttle was even more expensive at $54,500 per kilo.   

However, the new generation of privately-developed space vehicles has brought costs tumbling down. A paper by Harry Jones of the NASA Ames Research Centre quotes a figure of just $2,720 per kilo for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. In other words, the billionaires are transforming the economics of spaceflight, and if this trend continues it will indeed be affordable to, if not the many, then more of the few.

That’s so often the way with private enterprise. While it’s become fashionable to emphasise the role of the state in getting new technologies off the ground (literally in this case), it takes the discipline of the bottom line to turn expensive inventions into affordable products. 

One can always complain about the how the rich got rich, but if they use their wealth to achieve something that wouldn’t have happened otherwise then perhaps it’s worth the injustice.

And there’s much more at stake here than opening-up space tourism to mere millionaires. This really could be one giant leap for us all. Space-based internet services like StarLink and OneWeb are already launching, and before long, nowhere on Earth need be offline. Looking further ahead, we can see exciting possibilities for space-based solar power, zero-gravity manufacturing and asteroid mining. Without even leaving our solar system, we can dream — realistically — of a new age of abundance.

However, that depends on getting one thing straight: space is no place for people. The solar system may be full of natural resources, but from a human habitation point of view it is, quite frankly, a shithole. Think of the least hospitable place on the planet: Antarctica. Unless you’re a scientist, you’d be mad to want to live there. Yet, compared to everywhere apart from Earth, it’s really quite cosy: there’s air, water, temperatures that won’t kill you instantly, and a lack of deadly radiation. Luxury.

So if we can’t imagine the large-scale colonisation of Antartica anytime soon, then we can forget about Mars or the Moon — where the difficulties are multiplied a million-fold. Inevitably, humankind will get its grubby mitts on the solar system’s resources by sending up robots instead.

The greatest danger of the Branson and Bezos space race is that by putting themselves front-and-centre of space exploration, they’re actually slowing down our progress to the stars. Heroic, but essentially pointless, trips are a distraction. We’d do much better to concentrate our efforts on deploying machines that can keep going without air, gravity, sleep or publicity. That doesn’t mean that we cut ourselves out of the picture completely, but we need to work from home on this one. 

The alternative is that, over the decades, we build-up a human workforce in Earth orbit and beyond. Given the cost constraints, the bare minimum will be done to make their lives tolerable. Indeed, the economic incentive to immiserate the space-based working class would be overwhelming.

Throughout human history, the taming of frontiers has involved exploitation, sometimes extreme and vicious. Examples include the Trans-Atlantic slave trade; the transportation of convicts to Australia; and the use of indentured labour in the American colonies. For a modern-day example look at the international shipping industry — the worst parts of which are notorious for the maltreatment of crew members. Lying beyond national jurisdictions, the High Seas are the closest Earthly equivalent to outer space — and the most plausible model for a spaced-based economy. 

The sheer luxury of space tourism is a false dawn. As a source of income, it may help sustain the spaceflight industry and its progress on costs — but that’s just the trouble. If we make it economically viable to transport workers instead of tourists we can be sure that they’ll be exploited. Utterly dependent on their employers for their most basic needs and with no way home, they’ll be in a uniquely vulnerable position as corporations turn the heavens into hell. If you thought workers’ rights were bad under globalisation, wait until we let the billionaires have the entire solar system.

Even if you aren’t convinced of the value of space travel, given that we’ve yet to reach a utopia free of poverty, disease, and war here on Earth, there’s something to be said for a private space industry soaking up the legions of engineers and other aerospace professionals who might otherwise be spending their careers designing faster-flying missiles for traditional military contractors.

The private space industry has problems from a libertarian perspective too. SpaceX and Blue Origin are primarily in the business of competing for government contracts. New Mexico taxpayers shelled out $220 million to fund Virgin Galactic’s desert launch facility.

Yet even a rigid ideologue like Ayn Rand was able to see some good in government-funded space travel. “Nothing on earth or beyond it is closed to the power of man’s reason,” she wrote of the Moon landing. “This is the fundamental lesson to be learned from the triumph of Apollo 11.”

Her criticism of space flight’s detractors also rings only truer today. Their attitude, she wrote, “penalizes the good for being good, and success for being success.”

There’s a certain irony about the amount of billionaires trying to escape the planet, with Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos being the most notable of the mega-rich attempting to blast off into outer space.

But ordinary members of the public can now voyage to the stratosphere – that’s if you’ve got $125,000 (£90k) to spare. Space Perspective is a new company offering ‘luxury’ balloon rides into space. Promising a “comfortable” and “leisurely” ascent, the flight takes six hours in total, taking guests 20 miles above the Earth for a “life-changing” experience.

Up to eight guests can fit in the balloon – which is the size of a football stadium – where they can recline on plush seats while “experiencing the wonder-filled expansion of human consciousness”, Space Perspective’s website explains. ”To gaze upon Earth from space – to take in the astounding views and vivid colors – is an unforgettable spectacle that astronauts call life-altering.”

Since passengers won’t experience weightlessness during the flight, they can enjoy drinks from the ship’s fully-stocked bar and use the bathroom as normal, and can wear whatever they like – even a wedding dress. Space Perspective suggests it could be a great place to get married, celebrate a birthday, or host a company get-together.

Space Perspective is the project of Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum, the husband-and-wife duo who have served as technical advisors to Musk on human space flight. They met while taking part in Biosphere 2 – the early 90s experiment that explored the viability of human life in outer space. For two years in the Arizona desert, they lived with six others in a glorified greenhouse set up for completely self-sustained living, in a bid to find out what it would be like to set up a commune on Mars.

Space tourism has come a long way since 1967 when Barron Hilton, then president of Hilton Hotels, described his vision for a hotel on the moon.

It was envisioned — complete with a Galaxy Lounge where visitors could enjoy a martini while looking at the stars — as a luxury for the wealthy elite.

Today, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic aims to be the world’s first commercial “spaceline,” offering a 2.5-hour flight with six minutes of weightlessness and some incredible views. It even has more than 700 confirmed customers patiently waiting for flights. Additionally, Blue Origin, led by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, aims to provide space tourism as well. While space tourism remains largely a status symbol for the super rich, this trend is not unusual in the history of tourism. And there’s reason to believe that eventually this particular brand of tourism will advance a new form of adventure, boost the economy and make people more aware of the vulnerability of our planet.

That’s because tourists have always pushed boundaries, seeking new places and experiences. You see this playing out in how people are choosing to travel. According to Leisure and Aging, “Adventure tourism is one of the fastest-growing segments of the tourism market. It has become so popular that approximately 100 million adults have chosen vacations that are classified as soft adventure.” Space tourism is a logical next step for this growing trend.

In addition to adding another outlet for thrill seekers, space tourism offers a new way to boost the world’s economy. According to a report conducted by the World Travel & Tourism Council, tourism generated $7.2 trillion (9.8 percent of the global gross domestic product) and provided 284 million jobs — for a total of one out of every 11 jobs on the planet in 2015. There’s every reason to believe that commercial space travel will have a similar impact on the economy.

As space adventure will boost the economy, it likewise will increase our appreciation of how rare and valuable our own planet is. The experience of traveling out of Earth’s atmosphere and looking back on the world we inhabit produces a sense of awe and respect. Space travelers will gain a deeper appreciation for our planet and hopefully want to take a more active approach to protecting it when they return to terra firma.

While risks remain, it is fair to assume that space tourism has further to travel before it becomes the affordable domain of the middle class. But once it does, I am ready for the stellar adventure.

Pros and cons of space tourism and companies planning space travel

space tourism

Space tourists are different from astronauts; in they go to space only for leisure, or recreational purposes, and not for any scientific research. Now many companies are researching and testing spacecrafts aiming to carry tourists to space on a regular basis. If space tourism is an ultimate dream for many, others are terrified of the consequences it may entail on us. Before analyzing the pros and cons of space tourism, let have a thorough understanding of this type of tourism, its history and different aspects.

  1. Understanding various aspects of space tourism
  2. Space tourism in history
  3. Things you should know of space tourism
  4. A complete guid for space tourists
  5. How to become a space tourist?
  6. Special travel tips from astronauts
  7. 10 Things you might not know of space tourism

Pros

Manufacturing of new and better spacecraft
  1. Space tourism will increase the commercial activity in the time of poor state of world economy. Space tourism will become a new area of commercial endeavour and give employment to thousands of people. Manufacturing of new and better spacecraft will give employment to many skilled people.
  2. It will renew interest in space exploration. As a result, there will be more financial backing to support more innovations in the industry.
  3. Another big advantage is the newsworthiness of this emerging industry. Anything that is new in this form of tourism will become news headlines. This will draw more investors making the tourism companies sustainable.
  4. It would also help in identifying potential hazards dangerous for our planet.
  5. Allows us to view humanity from a different angle rising above petty politics, conflicts, successes, failures and love-hate feelings.
  6. Opens avenues for advanced technology which can be applied to other domains apart from space missions.
  7. Advanced opportunities in space exploration may help scientists predict earth’s weather more accurately.
  8. The scientists may be able to find new minerals and other precious materials in space and other planets. This will be of great help to the people of Earth where natural resources are depleting fast.
  9. We may someday even discover life in some corner of universe, and learn from it. Exploring the space may lead to some discovery, which we cannot even imagine.
  10. Make space tourists aware of fragility of our planet. When people see Earth in dark space, and a thin layer of atmosphere they are forced to think of smallness of Earth, and it may induce us to respect our planet and preserve our natural resources.
  11. We may someday find a place where humans can live. This will be of great help to already over populated Earth.
  12. Open a new avenue for adventure tourists and people who love thrill.

Cons

astronaut
  1. Is the space outside the earth meant for humans? This is the first question that needs a proper answer.
  2. Space travel technology at the nascent stage can make entering space a dangerous venture. Space travelers are likely to get exposed to harmful radiations from the sun.
  3. Lack of proper regulation and inadequate safety protocols can make space travel extremely dangerous. Companies engaged in this form of travel may fail to stick to safety measures in a spree to gather more customers.
  4. Experimentation and unsuccessful ventures may cause an unnecessary waste of resources which is not just worth.
  5. Outdated information can cause serious problems in space travel.
  6. It may spark unhealthy competition with those having superior technology.
  7. Developing space programs and spacecrafts need a lot of money. That money can be utilized for alleviation of poverty. Thousands of hungry people can be fed using that money.
  8. More space tourism ventures are likely to put the lives of astronauts at risk.
  9. Space tourism is meant for the super rich. For example, a single 2 ½ hour flight ticket in Virgin Galactic’s upcoming space ship costs $ 250,000.
  10. Since the industry is in its infancy, lack of regulation regarding safety protocols may turn out to be hazardous.
  11. Several natural resources are wasted in flying the fuel guzzling rockets. It pollutes the atmosphere as well. Thus, space program is bad for our environment.
  12. Apart from the accidents that lead to loss of life, human beings have to face harsh conditions and adapt themselves to the unfriendly environment which is not good for their health. Spending long hours in zero gravity condition can be dangerous for the person’s cardiovascular and musculoskeletal system. If people accidentally get exposed to high-energy ionizing cosmic rays, it may lead to cancer.
  13. It is great to imagine people walking on the surface of Mars. It would not be wise to consider the escape to space will help in escaping the problems of earth. There is nowhere in the solar system where you can find the environment as congenial as that available on earth.
  14. It is fine to crave for thrill, but the whole human race may land into trouble if we find something lethal to life on Earth during some exploration. We may unwittingly introduce some harmful microorganism from space into the atmosphere of Earth.

Conclusion

Does anybody remember when Arnold Schwarzenegger had to have the first Hummer that rolled off the assembly line? Or when Ashton Kutcher bought one of the first tickets for a space ride for a reported $1 million dollars several years ago? Again a silent pause. Well that is how I feel about the ultra rich flying into space. They can stay there for all I care, maybe they won’t try to run our lives and censor our freedom of speech if their minds are preoccupied with something else, like space flight? There are plenty of other cool vacation spots to travel to or unique adventure opportunities. You can storm chase for a couple of thousands of dollars. That sounds cool and boring all at the same time, pretty much what vacations are all about. So spare me the hype, I will wait till I don’t have to re-mortgage my house to take my next vacation. Besides if I am going to travel into space, I want to walk on the moon, now that is a cool vacation. Does anybody have any suntan lotion?

Resources

nationalgeographic.com, “What Virgin Galactic’s milestone flight means for the future of tourists in space: Carrying a crew that included company founder Richard Branson, the successful trip marks a significant step toward rocketing paying customers into new heights,” By Michael Greshko; nationalgeopgraphic.com, “Flying High—Private Space Flight,” By Burt Rutah; reason.com, “Billionaires Spending Their Own Money To Go to Space Has Progressives Howling for a Wealth Tax: Private space companies’ efforts are a boost to the government’s own space programs, in addition to being objectively cool,” By CHRISTIAN BRITSCHGI; dazeddigital.com, “Ticketed space travel is here, but only if you’re rich: Featuring champagne, Instagrammable views, and a £90k price tag,” By Felicity Martin; unheard.com, “Let’s leave Branson in space: Working in the heavens will make an Amazon warehouse seem like paradise,” BY PETER FRANKLIN; ucf.edu, “Opinion: Space Tourism: UCF professors debate the pros and cons of space tourism,” By Alan Fyall; drprem.com, “Pros and cons of space tourism and companies planning space travel;” huffpost.com, “Space Travel: Dreams and Prospects,” By Dr. Sten Odenwald;

Addendum

Is Space tourism that important?

Space tourism

Money is flowing in from leading industry giants like Jeff Bezos sponsoring Blue Origin, Elon Musk leading  Space X and Richard Branson funding Virgin Galactic. It is just only few years for space tourism to take off in a full-fledged manner. Most importantly, tickets are getting sold!

Ten Companies aiming to take travel into the space

With the human ambition soaring to literally make the saying “The Sky is the Limit” a reality, a number of companies have come up in the commercial space travel sector, to help in the fulfillment of this motive. Many of them work with the support of NASA, and hence, can be considered reliable enough to entrust the realization of your dream to travel in space. The new generation spaceships will carry tourists to space and give them an opportunity to observe the terrestrial bodies from space and experience weightlessness. The charges to the tourists will of course be exorbitant, somewhere between $200,000 and $500,000The consumer space travel ventures of 10 leaders of this industry are discussed further.

  1. Armadillo Aerospace
Armadillo Aerospace

Image Source : nasa.gov

Armadillo Aerospace is presently working on suborbital space tourism for civilians. It builds reusable space vehicles that operate on the principal of rockets. One of greatest achievements of this company is gaining an approval to work with Space Adventures, which is a high-profile space tourism company.

  1. Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (Space X)

Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (2002) is the brainchild of Elon Musk, who developed rockets to make space travel affordable to tourists. This company invented the first privately financed space shuttle to reach the earth’s orbit. This company, which developed the Falcon 9 for usage as a space station resources supplier, has also designed a capsule called Dragon on the top of the Flacon 9 for supplying cargo at present, but for being used for space travel by humans in the future. NASA seems to have supported this company in its efforts to build the human travel feature with $ 75 million funding. The dummy capsule is successfully tested. This success proves to be a milestone in the efforts of this company in commercial space travel.

  1. Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic is a leading name in the space tourism industry. This company already has a number of customers who bought tickets in advance for their space tourism venture. The company aims to provide suborbital space tourism to enthusiasts. It also endeavors to provide orbital space flight to humans. This company prefers to launch its spacecraft from an airplane rather than the ground to provide better momentum to the space vehicle at the time of take off.

  1. Masten Space
 Masten Space

Image Source : images.squarespace-cdn.com

MAsten Space creates and designs new space vehicles which can be reused. However, unlike many consumer space travel companies, Masten Space makes unmanned suborbital spacecrafts for the consumers. If that seems risky for you, you should be informed that Masten Space is a specialist in unmanned consumer spacecrafts. However, you should seek assurance from the company itself regarding safety of travelling in unmanned spacecrafts.

  1. XCOR Aerospace

XCOR Aerospace is the manufacturer of rocket engines, piston pumps and flight vehicles. It is also a leader in the commercial space travel industry. The EX-Rocket and X-Racer spacecrafts, manufactured by this company, have successfully completed 67 manned demos. This company sells tickets for space travel, with each ticket worth $95, 000.

  1. Orbital Outfitters

Orbital Outfitters develops costumes meant to be worn during space travel by both consumers and astronauts. A very interesting and daring venture of this company is the development of a space suit that a space traveler can wear while travelling in space and dive from the spaceship and land on the earth safely.

  1. Spaceport America
Spaceport America

Image Source : spaceportamerica.com

Spaceport America takes the credit for developing the first commercial spaceport. A spaceport is seen to be similar in concept to an airport or a seaport. This company has leased out its spaceport to the Virgin Galactic company for using it as its main office. The lease is valid for 20 years.

  1. Blue Origin

Blue Origin is a leader in the commercial space travel industry. It is founded by Jeff Bezos, the person who owns the famous e-commerce website, Amazon. Unlike a few other companies, Blue Origin is working towards the aim of providing space holidays to consumers at affordable rates. The ventures of this company are progressively directed from suborbital to orbital flying, with each venture adding something of value to the previous one. The company is developing Vertical Takeoff and Vertical Landing type, rocket-powered, spacecrafts for consumer space travel.

  1. Bigelow Aerospace

Bigelow Aerospace is an American space station creator. It is aimed at creating space stations with greater space in comparison to the conventional ones that are quite limiting in space. The company uses inflatable material to achieve this. They expect to launch their expandable space station in 2014 and make it available for public use in 2015. This company provides orbital facilities, apart from commercial space stations.

  1. Paragon Space Development

Paragon space development is involved in providing environmental control in the hardest of space weathers. This company creates and tests, life support equipment and accessories of astronauts and others present in the space ships.  This company was the first to produce a long duration video on the development and sustenance of life in space. It is also credited with performing the multi-generational animal life experimentation and commercial life experimentation on space.

  1. CST-100 by Boeing

CST-100 is a spacecraft by Boeing in collaboration with Bigelow Aerospace. It aims to transport NASA’s crew to ISS and to private space stations. It uses proven technology from Apollo and space shuttle programs of NASA. This reusable spacecraft will support 7 people, and will be capable of remaining in the orbit for up to seven months. A number of tests are underway. It is expected to be operational by 2016.

  1. Dream Chaser by Sierra Nevada Corporation

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser is a suborbital and orbital spacecraft. It can carry up to seven people and will provide transportation service for crew and cargo of NASA to ISS and back to Earth. This reusable aircraft has a built-in launch escape system. It can land on airport runway like space shuttle did. It has undergone drop tests from a helicopter, and recently undergone motor firing and ignition test. It will be ready to begin operations by 2016.

  1. Rocket by Stratolaunch
Rocket by Stratolaunch

Image Source : teslarati.com

Stratolaunch Systems is planning to launch rockets to orbit. The carrier aircraft will have a wingspan of 117 meters, making it the largest airplane by wingspan. It will have a range of 2,200km on air launch missions. Initially it plans to send cargo and satellites into space, but ultimately it hopes to launch astronauts as well.

  1. Liberty Launch System by ATK

Liberty launch vehicle by Alliant Techsystems (ATK) and Astrium, will fly astronauts to and from low orbits of Earth. A 91-meter Liberty rocket will blast into orbit a capsule, which can carry seven people. It has abort system and combines flight-proven elements. It may begin test flights in 2014 and first manned mission may occur in 2015.

How much you need to save before you travel into space

Are you fond of adventures? You have already experienced the thrills of paradropping, scuba diving, river rafting, mountain climbing and what not, and still up for more challenges? There is one more option to challenge your nerves. What do you think about space walk, or still better to take a walk on the surface of moon? I am not kidding. It is now possible. Space tourism is now a reality. Many people are now planning to go to space and experience the thrills of weightlessness. Up till now only government sponsored spacecrafts were launched into space but now a number of private players are developing commercial spacecrafts for space tourist. The only catch is that it is exorbitantly expensive. So how much will you need to experience the thrills of space tourism? Let’s see.

Cost of space travel

  • In 2001, American billionaire Dennis Tito became the first space tourist to go on a trip to International Space Station. He had to shell out $20 million for the privilege of spending seven days in space. He was the first private client of Space Adventure, the only company to have launched private tourists to space up until now. The cost of such a trip now in the spacecraft of this company will be around $ 50 million. The company offers many more options- for additional $ 15 million you can be trained at ISS for a spacewalk, and experience the nothingness of space for 90 minutes or for $ 300 million, you can go for a trip to moon.
  • This is not the only option available to you. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will take you to suborbital flight later this year for $ 20 million. Many celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Justin Beiber have booked their flights; you can join in too. You will receive few days of training at Virgin Galactic Space centre, and then you will be launched into outer space at three times the speed of sound. Once in space, you will experience weightlessness and total silence for about six minutes and then you will return to mother Earth.
  • Dragon capsule by Space Exploration Technologies can take you to orbital flight into 370 km orbit for $ 20 million per seat, or you can book a 7-crew package for $ 140 million. If you could wait for 10 to 20 years, you can explore Mars, or even settle there.
  • If you want to settle for a little less, a subsidiary of Space Adventure, Zero Gravity is offering a Boeing 727 trip, where plane climbs to 34,000 feet, and then swirls to parabolas to give experience of weightlessness. This trip will cost you about $ 5,000.

Though prices are unbelievably high at this juncture, it is expected that when more vehicles will be launched, and more trips and better technology invented, the prices will go down. The high cost at present funds research and development of this fledgling industry.

Everything you need to travel to and back from space

Everything you need to travel to and back from space
 Everything you need to travel to and back from space

So, have you booked your seat for a trip to space? Now it is time to pack your bags. What are the things you are taking along for this adventure trip?  You will have to do a little bit of planning to make your trip comfortable and safe.

1. A spacecraft: If you want to go to space, you can do it perched safely in a spacecraft, which needs to be launched into space using a rocket.

2. Control system: Some sort of system should be in place to control the journey of your spacecraft. When it will enter the space, the time when it should come back into the Earth’s atmosphere, should all be precisely planned and controlled. Ground crew and set of computers can be used to do this.

3. Oxygen to breathe: Space is inhospitable to mankind. There is no air out there. So first thing you will require is obviously air to breathe. Air in Earth’s atmosphere is a mix of various gases, out of which we use oxygen in order to be alive and kicking.

4. Insulation: Space is very cold, as there is no atmosphere there. You’ll need some kind of insulation to keep yourself warm. A space suit will be handy if you plan to venture out into the space. You will need pressure to keep your body working in space. There are many kinds of harmful radiations, and there is drastic variation of temperature. When you re-enter the atmosphere of Earth, your capsule will be heated up. Therefore your spacecraft should also be fitted with some kind of insulation.

5. Water and nutrients: Our body needs food to replenish its energy. Therefore some kind of food will be needed to get the required nutrients and energy. We also need water to keep ourselves hydrated. Learn to ration and recycle water so that you may not need to carry tons of water with you.

6. Other needs: You have to take care of personal hygiene in space too. Don’t forget to carry few tooth brushes, and soap. There is no force of gravity in space. In order to avoid keep flying and banging on to various things in the spacecraft, you need something solid to remain anchored. A sleeping bag of some kind will also be handy.

7. Tools to mend faults: Because of zero gravity many things break down in space. You will need some tools to repair the faults.

Apart from all these, you should have a plan B ready for any exigency. Everything may not go according to plan and somewhere something is bound to go wrong. Be prepared for some extra stay in space if required.

Space Travel: Dreams and Prospects

Why is it that we are not further along with ‘space travel’ despite over 60 years of steady effort? It’s very simple! For interstellar travel we have dreams but no technology, while for interplanetary travel we have technology but no dreams!

The biggest problem is getting there, and this is a simple matter of scale. Sailing ships and diesel-powered vessels are a good way to travel Earth’s oceans, but the technology is inadequate for distances 100-times greater to get us to the moon in a few days. We need chemical rockets for that. Similarly, another 100-fold step gets us to interplanetary space, and for that chemical rockets are inadequate. We need a completely different technology such as ion rockets powered by solar or nuclear energy. But the biggest step is interstellar space. There, the distance scale factor is over 100,000 times greater than interplanetary distances. We need a propulsion technology that similarly has as much in common with advanced ion engines as the canvas in sailing ships had compared to ion engines. You can forget about ‘warp drives’ because physicists do not understand what space (e.g. gravity) actually ‘is’ let alone how to artificially change its geometry. There is actually no physical evidence that it is even a quantum field!

The iconic starship Enterprise and warp drive. (Credit: Star Trek)

Then there is the matter of destination. As I have pointed out in my previous Huffington Post blogs and in the book Interstellar Travel:An astronomer’s guide, the cost of interstellar travel is so great we will have thoroughly explored our destination by remote sensing long before we even begin our first flight. For trillion-dollar missions, we will not travel to a star that we do not know IN ADVANCE has a planetary system. But not just any planetary system. To justify the economics and safety risks, it must have an Earth-sized planet in its habitable zone with an oxygen atmosphere, which means a biosphere – which means life! We will simply not make a hundred-year journey only to live under a dome and explore in spacesuits a barren rock with a crushing gravity. Also, we are starting to create a catalog of Earth-sized planets in habitable zones close-by our sun. You can forget all the popular destinations closer than 50 light years like Alpha Centauri, Barnards Star or Epsilon Eridani. And if you want to have an oxygen atmosphere, well we haven’t found one of those yet even after looking at planets out to 100 light years or more. Our first interstellar journey will not be a cheap jaunt to Alpha Centauri, but a far more technically demanding expedition beyond 100 light years… or further.

We have lots of dreams about this interstellar domain and what we will do when we get there. Science fiction is replete with a bewildering list of possibilities. But the truth of the matter is that these are dreams supported by no known technology that will let us make 100-light-year journeys at the minimum. Although interstellar travel presents challenges far beyond our current level of understanding and technology, interplanetary travel is entirely workable within our existing technological attainments. It is not a matter of technological know-how, but simply political will.

Interplanetary Travel: Technology without dreams

By comparison with the interstellar setting, there are comparatively few science fiction stories about interplanetary travel and colonization. Yet, as I discuss in the book Interplanetary Travel: An astronomer’s guide, interplanetary travel and colonization are within our technological horizon even today. We have the technology but we as yet do not have the compelling (science fiction) dreams for what to do with it!

The biggest challenge is that virtually all of the destinations beyond the orbit of Saturn are ice-bound worlds and moonlets. These provide no useful resources from which to build habitats, unless we go to the extreme expense of building them in the resource-rich inner solar system, and literally dragging them billions of miles to these remote destinations. Having done this, we still require supply ships to bring us replacement parts and food stuffs, although water and breathable atmospheres can be made from locally-abundant ices. Also, it is cheaper to mine a kilogram of ice on a moon of Jupiter than to go all the way out to Pluto to mine the same kilogram.

A mining facility on the moon (Credit: NASA)

Most of the likely destinations near Jupiter and Saturn are either ‘radioactive’ and deadly to humans (the four giant Galilean moons), or are poisonous and frigid (Titan). There is a huge curiosity value in seeing them first-hand that any child in grade school can tell you about, but it is pointless to invest in a simplistic tourism industry that would cater only to a vanishingly small fraction of the wealthy population who are also Explorers and in excellent health. Nevertheless, there will be trips to the outer solar system, but these will come about as a byproduct of fast interplanetary travel developed to support activities on Mars, the asteroids and other inner solar system, resource-rich destinations. There will be huge commercial pressures among competing companies to shorten travel times to Mars by advancing new rocket technology at the lowest costs.


VASIMR rocket to Mars, with a nuclear reactor to supply power.

In terms of rocket technology, it is pretty clear the road that we will take in the next few decades. We will start with solar-electric ion engines that have 10 times the specific impulse of chemical rockets (SI=400 seconds). They will be powered by large deployable photovoltaic films, which will supply the megawatts of power needed to drive spacecraft throughout the inner, sunlight-rich, solar system. Trips to Mars on the order of weeks or less are easily foreseeable, based on even current ion engine designs. There are no obvious technological roadblocks to developing such engines. Although small kilowatt ion engines have already been used on NASA spacecraft such as Dawn, these provide only an ounce of thrust per engine. VASIMR engines being readied for testing on the International Space Station in the next few years will deliver several pounds of thrust. In 2022, a spacecraft now being designed for Mars will test-out high efficiency solar arrays and the newer generation of ion engines operating at far higher thrusts than Dawn or Deep Space 1. It is also expected that the Asteroid Rendezvous Mission in the mid-2020s will test out an even more powerful ion engine. So, we are moving away from chemical rockets and taking the next step to full-scale ion engine technology for most future interplanetary missions through at least 2030.

Fission Fragment Rocket concept (Credit: NASA)

With specific impulses reaching 10,000 seconds or more, nuclear rockets are truly the future workhorses of interplanetary travel and promise journeys to the outer planets taking days or weeks. But current designs are massive, and there is no political will among the Western Democracies for placing them on launch pads. Only China, with its weaker public control of risk-taking might be in a position to deploy nuclear rockets before the middle of this century. This places the realistic horizon for nuclear rockets well into the last half of the 21st century at best. For now, the much safer solar-electric systems will dominate. In fact, they have spin-off technologies that directly impact domestic green energy development!

Today, a home owner can cover the roof of their home with solar panels to generate the electricity they need. With the solar technology needed to run ion engines for quick interplanetary travel, such solar panels may only amount to a single square yard of roof surface and a few kilograms of mass! This is how interplanetary travel will be hastened through green energy development on the ground. This is unlike the development program for nuclear rockets, because there are no economic or commercial reasons to build small, low-mass portable nuclear reactors. That niche has been completely occupied by roof-top solar panels and a non-centralized strategy for energy production.

The opportunity for making high-speed, interplanetary travel a reality is within our grasp in terms of technology. That is why I am so excited about the prospects for a Mars landing in the 2030s, and where that effort will take us in 2040 and beyond. Interplanetary travel will probably never be the family-style jaunt in space that author Robert Heinlein described in his many books, but it will steadily become more of a reality as time goes on. By the 22nd century, it is inconceivable that regularly-scheduled trips to Mars by explorers and scientists will not be commonplace. This may also be the century when some limited commercial tourist travel to the moon and Mars becomes possible as rocket technology advances and travel times become weeks or even days, and not years


Martian city concept (Credit: MostEpicStuff.com)

From that point on, there will be much that we can do in this solar system in the centuries that follow to erect actual cities on the moon and Mars near water-rich locations, and create human environments that are socially-complex, experientially-rich, and perhaps politically-independent.

Meanwhile, let’s get started writing more science fiction stories that celebrate the many exciting possibilities within our own solar system and help us dream better!

The stars can wait for another millennium.

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