It’s 2010. You’ve just stumped up a fifth of a million dollars for a ticket on a rocket plane that will take you into space for seven minutes. You’re giddy at the prospect of joining the several hundred humans that have left Earth’s atmosphere.
But six years later, and that ticket remains unused, with the vehicle that you will take on your trip experiencing major delays. What’s more, the cost of a ticket has been raised to $250,000. If Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is supposed to be the shining example of space tourism, then it hasn’t got off to a great start.
The strange thing, though, is that those initial punters don’t exactly seem to be perturbed by the delays. Sure, there has been the odd disgruntled customer here and there. But given more than 700 tickets have been sold, shouldn’t we expect to hear more stories of high-profile celebrities – of which many, including Brad Pitt and Angeline Jolie, are believed to have signed up – returning their ticket in disgust, and perhaps backing a competitor like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin or the lesser-known XCOR Aerospace?
The silence has been deafening – but, weirdly, deafeningly supportive of Virgin Galactic.
Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, and later partnered with Scaled Composites, who built the original SpaceShipTwo. Credit: Jack Brockway
Lask month, the company unveiled its new SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Unity, following the tragic loss of the its predecessor VSS Enterprise – and the life of co-pilot Michael Alsbury – in October 2014. Like its predecessor, the vehicle is designed to be carried into the air by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, before it detaches and uses its revolutionary rocket engine to take its six passengers (and two pilots) beyond the Karman line 100 kilometers (62 miles) up, the official boundary of space. They will experience weightlessness as the plane freefalls for seven minutes, before its feathering re-entry system activates, helping the plane land safely on the ground.
That inaugural first flight has been perennially delayed though, with the initial estimate of 2012 slipping by. Now the official line continually seems to be “the next few years.” A request by IFLScience for a more firm date was met with silence. Speaking to some current ticket holders though, it seems some are happy to wait.
“I bought my ticket in early 2010, at the original price of $200,000,” journalist Jim Clash, who holds ticket number 610, told IFLScience. “Rocket science is hard. While it's terrible we had the SpaceShipTwo accident in 2014 and lost co-pliot Michael Alsbury, that's why there is a rigorous testing phase in the first place.”
Clash’s comments seem to echo most of the industry. Space tourism is a very new area, and one that relies heavily on confidence. The loss of Alsbury was a tragedy, but there weren’t many calls for space tourism to be abandoned in the wake of his death. People were aware he was a test pilot in an experimental vehicle. It’s unlikely they would be so forgiving if passengers had been on board.
In fact, in the wake of the devastating accident, only 3 percent of ticket holders asked for a refund. The other 97 percent, it seems, are fully invested in the ride.
Image in text: Clash seen with a mock-up of SpaceShipTwo in New York in 2014. Used with permission
Will SpaceShipTwo kickstart the age of space tourism? Credit: Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic, for its part, is keen to stress that the journey to their first successful flight will be slow and steady, rather than a race, with a big emphasis put on safety and testing. “As a thousand year old saying goes, there is no easy way from the Earth to the stars,” the company said in a recent statement. “But finally, there is a way, and through steady testing, we will find it.”
Alan Stern, a holder of tickets for scientific research flights on Virgin Galactic, who you might know better as the lead for NASA's New Horizons mission, echoed Clash’s comments. “The delays are understandable,” he told IFLScience. “After all, Virgin and other flight providers are inventing an entirely new form of spaceflight.”
In the coming weeks, months, or years, there’s little doubt that other more cynical articles than this will continue to criticize Branson’s ambitious venture. They might cite growing unease among existing customers. Perhaps, for some, that is true. For the other 97 percent or so, though, the silence continues.
And there are broader implications than being first on the market. For humanity to truly have a presence in Earth orbit, many view the private sector as key. The International Space Station (ISS) will be retired by 2024, or 2028 at the latest. After this, NASA, and probably Russia and other partners, will focus on deep space exploration. Earth orbit will be left largely to the remit of private companies like SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace.
Companies like SpaceX are advancing the privatization of space. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossman
Virgin Galactic will not be taking people into orbit, at least not any time soon. But it may prove that space tourism ventures are viable, even profitable. Bigelow Aerospace, for its part, wants to build inflatable space hotels in orbit (a test module will launch to the ISS this year), while companies like Reaction Engines dream of taking the customers to these venues. A bigger appetite for their success means support, from the public and investors.
And that’s saying nothing of the other companies we mentioned earlier, Blue Origin and XCOR. The former has made headlines with its reusable New Shepard rocket, which they will use to take paying customers on short hops into space. XCOR’s Lynx spacecraft, meanwhile, will take a pilot and a passenger on short hops into space not wholly dissimilar to Virgin Galactic.
To support this emerging infrastructure, space ports are springing up all over the world, from Houston, Texas, to a planned space-capable U.K. runway in Newquay. And start-ups are cropping up to take advantage of the multitude of emerging technologies that the privatization of space has created. We are closer than ever to the day when hundreds, perhaps thousands of humans can become astronauts. The more fanciful would say it is a step towards humans colonizing other worlds.
It could all be for nothing, though, if the inaugural flight of Virgin Galactic with passengers on board was lost. It is important we – or they – get it right, and if that means going slow and steady, then so be it. Those first images and video, of people floating above Earth as SpaceShipTwo ascends and descends, are going to be pretty spectacular. And who knows what else the future will hold.
“It’s worth the wait,” said Clash.