As children we are infatuated by space; mesmerised from our earliest infancy by stories of black holes and intergalactic adventures. We are told to reach for the stars, but only the lucky few are ever able to actually attain them – and those are the ones dressed in space suits.
But is all that set to change, thanks to the advent of commercial space travel? It used to be the case that the sky was the limit, but that’s changing, thanks to the much-heralded Virgin Galactic. Sir Richard Branson recently signed a deal with the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), which gives the conglomerate permission to charter space flights from its base in the US state of New Mexico. The decision is monumental, and signals the beginning of a new era in the history of travel. That’s, ahem, one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
And so, with the first Virgin Galactic flights on track for later this year, we’re now poised to witness the start of a second major space race: one that’s no longer a question of international politics, but of competitive space tourism.
The commercial space travel trend began back in 2001, thanks in part to American multimillionaire Dennis Tito. NASA reluctantly allowed him to become the first space tourist onboard the Soyuz TM-32. His bold excursion set him back $20 million, and triggered a succession of wannabe space cadets, including South African businessman Mark Shuttleworth in 2002 and a second American businessman, Gregory Olsen, in 2005. Eccentric though they seemed at the time, these extravagant pioneers have helped to inspire a new venture in tourism, forever redefining the way we see travel.
Of course, it didn’t take long for Sir Richard Branson to explore this newfound niche in the market. In 2004 plans were announced to build the world’s first commercial spacecraft, for which – in lieu of the bankrupting $20 million it had cost each space tourist to hitch a ride thus far – projected ticket costs were lowered to $100,000 per person. Branson commissioned Burt Rutan, the famous designer of SpaceShipOne and winner of the prestigious Ansari X Prize, to design and build the futuristic fleet of spacecrafts for Virgin Galactic. The resultant SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo are streamlined jet aircrafts that have the capacity to rocket through the stratosphere, following a suborbital flight path that takes around two and a half hours to complete. It may sound bold, but over 700 stargazing passengers have signed up for the Virgin Galactic experience so far, and Branson has promised that he himself will fly accompanied by his children on the inaugural flight.
Yet Branson is not alone in looking to the heavens, as a queue of ambitious competitors seeking to elbow into the commercial space travel sphere has begun to form behind him. Travel tourism company World View Enterprises have recently piloted a successful test flight of their high-altitude space balloon, which floats up to 32 kilometres and is similar to the one used by Felix Baumgartner in his skydive from the edge of space. Tickets for the balloon are predicted to cost a measly $75,000 per person, and commercial flights are due to begin in 2016. Space Adventures, which helped organise Dennis Tito’s first flight, also ups the ante as the only company in the world that transports tourists to the International Space Stations, while pioneers such as Bigelow Aerospace and the Space Island Group plan to build further space stations and an entire space infrastructure for tourists to visit.
The travel community waits with bated breath to see the results of all this galactic expansion, so watch this… erm… space. If our experience of the 20th century is anything to go by, the impending space race is going to change the way we see travel forever.
Words by Elizabeth Gourd
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