Space Tourism: Can We Finally Live Out Childhood Dreams?
When I was in kindergarten in February 1962, I remember spending what seemed like hours sitting in front of an old black-and-white Sylvania TV, staring at the launching pad at Cape Canaveral where Mercury astronaut John Glenn was sitting atop an Atlas rocket, waiting to become the first American to be launched into orbit.
The ground crew's preparations seemed to drag on endlessly, but even so, the resulting thrill of watching his history-making flight was worth it.
What was most exciting,though, was daydreaming afterward about the future, in which we'd all be able to do the same thing. In the 1960s, after all, we pretty much took for granted that space travel would become routine within our lifetimes, and that technological advances would make the trip outside our atmosphere as effortless and efficient as it was for Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and his planet-hopping crew mates, who were the juvenile sci-fi novel equivalent of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. In this 1965 Associated Press interview, Mercury astronaut L. Gordon Cooper was asked if the ordinary man in the street would ever be able to fly in space. He blithely replied:
Yes...the same question was asked 40 years ago about air travel. Now, air transport has changed our way of life. I think that one of these days, before not too many years, space travel will also be commonplace.
To our collective chagrin, that day never did quite arrive. Instead, as adults, boomers grudgingly came to accept that space travel, with its costs and daunting dangers, was still out of reach for all but a few professional astronauts. We wouldn't have the chance to rocket into the cosmos and gaze down upon our blue-green planet from high above. As British folk singer Billy Bragg, who was born a month or so after me in 1957, laments in one of his songs:
Now that the space race is over
I can't help but feel that we've all grown up too soon
But now, it seems at least possible again that we might get that chance after all. Boomer billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, the 60-year-old founder of the 400-company Virgin Group and a world-class balloonist in his spare time, is a guy who doesn't seem to have the word "impossible" in his vocabulary. (In this previous blog post, we touted his ambition of working for another 30 years, and his efforts to battle ageism and create job opportunities for older people.) In 2004, Branson started his own private, for-profit space airline, Virgin Galactic, and cut a 20-year deal with the state of New Mexico to reserve use of its $200 million SpaceportAmerica commercial launch facility, which last October completed its first runway. Since then, Virgin Galactic has developed a reusable suborbital space plane, SpaceShipTwo, that already has been glide-tested in the atmosphere, with rocket-powered tests to begin later this year. Here's a BBC News report that includes a first-ever video glimpse of the spacecraft's interior.
In the past week, Branson took SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo, the booster aircraft that will help the space plane part of the way into suborbital space, on a fly-by over San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Virgin Galactic also began accepting applications for pilot-astronauts.
Virgin Galactic hasn't yet set a date for its first commercial space tourism flight, but there are hints that it may happen as soon as 2012. According to this MSNBC article, already, several hundred people have put down deposits for seats on early flights that will take them briefly above the 62-mile-high threshold of space. At $200,000, the inaugural ticket price is still daunting. But think of it this way: That's only a fraction of the $20 million that wealthy New Jersey scientist and businessman Gregory Olsen paid in 2005 for a chance to ride into orbit on a Russian Soyuz space vehicle and visit the International Space Station. If the cost keeps dropping at anything close to that rate, it's conceivable that a suborbital joy ride may someday soon be had for a cost in the four figures, especially if Virgin Galactic is able to partly subsidize the cost by transporting cargo for government space missions. As Branson said in this CNN report:
What we want to be able to do is bring space travel down to a price range where hundreds of thousands of people would be able to experience space, and they never dreamed that they could.
Well, actually, with due deference to Sir Richard, we did dream that we could -- which is exactly why some of us are so excited about having that dream again. And frankly, even if I never actually get to go, I'm still happy to think that some boomers will.
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