Virgin Galactic’s Milestone Flight Boosts Space Tourism Race
On July 11, 2021, we witnessed the start of a new beginning for space tourism 53 miles above our planet’s surface. Virgin Galactic’s V.S.S. Unity, launched from a mothership nearly 9 miles above New Mexico’s desert, rocketed to new horizons and presented an entirely new experience. We could see the Earth’s curvature, all while escaping the bonds of gravity. This was the 22nd flight test for Virgin’s historic aircraft. However, it was also the only fourth crewed flight and the first with a full crew on board. The full crew consists of 6 members, 2 of whom are pilots and four mission specialists.
Beginning a historical start to the possibility of space tourism, the aircraft took off from Spaceport America at 3:45 PM UK Time. This came as a result of a 90-minute delay from the preplanned 2:00 PM UK time take-off due to bad weather conditions. Likewise,the test flight lasted for nearly an hour including a short period of weightlessness. Similarly, it reached a maximum speed of Mach 3, which means 3 times the speed of sound.
Experience of a Lifetime
Present on the space plane for this glorious event was Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin and one of the leading figures in space tourism. Virgin Galactic was founded in 2004 with a vision of sending the common man to space. He described this event as a ‘once in a lifetime experience’. Furthermore, he announced the dawn of the new space age and how it was his dream since his childhood. Michael Colglazier, the CEO of Virgin Galactic, seconded Branson’s words considering this a landmark event for Virgin Galactic and the whole commercial space industry.
On the other hand, it was also a life-changing experience for other members of the crew. Sirisha Bandla, a 34-year-old aeronautics engineer of Indian origin, became the 66th woman in history to fly into space. She said she was taken aback by the view. Similarly, Beth Moses, who is also the 63rd woman in history to fly into space, told that the stillness and peace took her breath away. Furthermore, Bandla also considered this event as the beginning of a new era, where a lot of underrepresented groups, like women and people of colour, would be crossing the barriers of space.
For the viewers here on Earth, the company presented a live stream featuring host Stephen Colbert. According to the company, the event was viewed in more than 65 countries. However, glitches and delays also brought in some frustrations. People were quick to take to Twitter criticizing their preparations for broadcast. Due to technical problems, the takeoff could not be shown in the live stream.
Ticket Sales Reopens
Looking to start early in the exciting field of space tourism, Virgin Galactic has reopened ticket sales after the success of the Unity 22 test flight. The price of the ticket is 450,000 US dollars a seat. This is a sharp increase from the 250,000 US dollars paid by the first 600 customers but Virgin Galactic stopped ticket sales in 2018 t. For now, they will offer multiple options for commercial flyers, which include a single-seat, multiple seats, or all four seats. Similarly, they also sell seats for research and astronaut training purposes. This will cost about 600,000 US dollars apiece. Some of the ticket buyers are some familiar names in the space tourism industry. Elon Musk has already paid a 10,000 US dollars deposit for a ticket.
The Competition’s Just Next Door
Although Virgin Galactic’s successful test flight led to an astounding 600 ticket buys, it does not sail alone in the space tourism industry. Branson’s billionaire friends, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, already have plans to send the common man into space. Blue Origin, owned by Bezos, has already flown him to the edge of space, 62 miles above Earth, in its New Shepard rocket. Accompanying him was his brother Mark, Oliver Daemen, an 18-year old student, and Wally Funk, an 82-year-old legendary aviator. New Shepard is a rocket with a capsule while the VSS Unity is a spaceplane that launches from a mothership. Blue Origin can cross over the Karman line, the most widely accepted boundary between earth and space, 100 km above mean sea level. Likewise, it boasts of having the largest windows in space for a better view. Furthermore, Blue Origin also points out that its rocket has a better performance on environmental impacts.
On the other hand, SpaceX already has a glowing record of sending humans to space. By beating aerospace titan Boeing to launch American astronauts to the International Space Station, it presents itself as a strong competitor in space tourism. Unlike Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, SpaceX’s tour will go to even further heights and may well last for several days. Similarly, SpaceX has already a deal in place with Axiom Space to send private crews to the International Space Station. They will receive astronaut training from both NASA and SpaceX.
How Did We Get Here?
Even though new options are popping up for commercial space tourism, our venturing into space has a history of only six decades. On April 12th, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to reach space. As of July 2021, only 574 people from 41 countries have gone to space according to the FAI criterion.
The early human spaceflight came in the decade of the ’60s following the successful launch of the Sputnik 1 in 1957. After Yuri’s historic venture, Alan Shephard became the first US citizen in space. In July 1969, we made a giant leap when Apollo 11 took humans to the moon for the first time. During the ‘70s, the concept of space tourism was already put in place even though there were failures to deliver. Similarly, during the ‘80s, the Space Shuttle program commenced. Over the course of 30 years from 1981 to 2011, it supported 135 missions sending 355 people to space. The Challenger disaster came as a great tragedy during this period and halted the program for a couple of years. Furthermore, during the ‘90s, spaceflight was business as usual with the US and Russia leading the race and China starting to make movements.
The turn of the century was a turning point for space tourism. For the first time, Dennis Tito became the first private citizen to board the International Space Station. In the years that followed, wealthy citizens made frequent visits to the place that is out of reach for most of us. The leading companies that we see today were established during this period (Blue Origin in 2000, SpaceX in 2002, and Virgin Galactic in 2004). Over the period of nearly two decades, we have come a long way. There have been a lot of setbacks, failures, and fatal incidents. Finally, we are beginning to get what we were promised.
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In this blog, we came across the news of Virgin Galactic’s milestone edge of space flight. Likewise, we studied how this will democratize space tourism for people who would otherwise have been underrepresented in the industry. Similarly, we looked at the strong ticket sales that came as a result of the successful test flight. Furthermore, we analyzed the competition in the industry and offerings of various companies. Finally, we closed out with a brief history of human spaceflight and space tourism.
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