Practical Techie: Virgin Galactic ushers in private space flight
On Sunday, July 11, 2021, Virgin Galactic made aerospace history when it launched Unity 22 into the skies over southern New Mexico with five crew mates aboard, including company founder Sir Richard Branson. The British empresario became the first billionaire to launch into space.
The 70-year-old Branson is now the second oldest person in space, behind John Glenn. It came just days before Amazon founder and richer rival, Jeff Bezos was set to launch into space on his own spacecraft. If Bezos’ Blue Origin is successful, he will fall to third oldest. Astronaut Glenn flew on the shuttle at age 77, in 1998.
GALACTIC — Since 2018, it is Unity’s fourth trip to the edge of space — the Branson adventure target date originally was for July 16, 2019, which marked the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s launch of three humans to the moon, but technical problems stalled the venture.
Branson and his crew sustained suborbital flight for some four minutes of weightlessness and were able to witness the curvature of the Earth, quickly gliding back home to a runway landing on their winged spaceplane.
The craft was initially carried aloft underneath a twin-fuselage aircraft, the Eve, named in honor of Branson’s mother. Then, at an altitude of about 8 1/2 miles (13 kilometers), or 46,000 feet high it detached from the mother ship and fired its rocket engine to three times the speed of sound. The only mishap during the entire 15-minute ordeal was faulty video images live-streamed during the space flight.
Before climbing aboard, Branson signed the astronaut logbook and wisecracked: “The name’s Branson. Sir Richard Branson. Astronaut Double-oh-one. License to thrill.”
But he has space race rivals.
CONTENDERS — Bezos’ Blue Origin company intends to send tourists deeper into space with longer stays. He is waiting for his inaugural flight before announcing ticket prices.
Then there is also super-rich entrepreneur Ellon Musk’s SpaceX venture. It flies Apollo-style, using capsules atop rockets, instead of an air-launched, reusable spaceplane. SpaceX is already launching astronauts to the space station for NASA and is building futurist moon and Mars ships. His customers will go into orbit around the Earth for days, with seats costing well into the millions. The company’s first private flight is set for September 2021. Musk has not committed to going into space himself.
There is also SpaceIL, the nonprofit Israeli initiative whose spacecraft crashed on the moon two years ago, falling short in its attempt to become the first privately funded lunar landing. It has secured $70 million in funding to make a second attempt at a lunar landing in 2024.
Branson believes space is for all humanity, which is why he partnered with Omaze to raffle away two seats on one of the very first Virgin Galactic spaceflights.
COSTS — Since NASA ended its space shuttle program in 2011, today only two private companies — Boeing and SpaceX — have contracts to fly humans to the International Space Station, or nearby.
The slow evolution for the private human space travel industry is because it is an untested business model. The most promising plans are only backed by billionaires with big agendas, for now, solely aimed at other rich people.
Space commerce began in 1982 when a company called Space Services launched the first privately funded rocket with a dummy payload of 40 pounds of water. Two years later, the US passed the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984, clearing the pad for more private activity.
Human passengers climbed aboard in 2001 when a financier named Dennis Tito bought a seat on a Russian Soyuz rocket and took a $20 million, nearly eight-day vacation on the Space Station. Since then, six travelers went to orbit through the Russian Space Agency.
Plans for Virgin Galactic are to start taking paying customers on joyrides by 2021. Hundreds of potential space tourists have already claimed a spot for suborbital flights aboard Virgin spacecraft, paying $250,000 apiece for the privilege.
BIZ ANGLE — Meanwhile, the big business today is in cargo service to space, including commo satellites, military hardware, and NASA building materials for geostatic orbital stations.
The launch from Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America in New Mexico is positive for the state. It generated 800 engineering jobs and many support workers during the last 17 years of development. The spaceport was partnered by then Gov. Bill Richardson hoping to jumpstart a space tourism hub for New Mexico’s economy. Richardson estimates Galactic will bring in around $8 billion by the year 2030.