By William J. Furney
Richard Branson is playing tennis four times a day. The wealthy British businessman, who is nearing 70, is doing this, we are told, to get fit for space. Is the Virgin-empire boss planning on setting foot on Mars, embarking on a lunar mission — or just wanting to spin around the Earth a few times? None of that. Branson is aiming to launch himself to the edge of Earth-space and propel a drive for space tourism, which is already in place thanks to the Russians.
“Instead of doing one set of tennis every morning and every evening, I’m doing two sets. I’m going kiting and biking — doing whatever it takes to make me as fit as possible,” Branson told BBC radio. “We’re talking about months away, not years away — so it’s close. There are exciting times ahead … I’m going for astronaut training; I’m going for fitness training, centrifuge and other training, so that my body will hopefully cope well when I go to space,” said the father of two who is ace at snaring media attention for his many endeavours.
So is Branson’s Virgin Galactic really heading into the vast, unchartered territory of space, or is the bold new enterprise all just a bit of a racket, another casual jaunt for those with more money than they could ever spend?
Before, it was a multi-nation race to the moon; now it’s a private dash to put paying bums-on-seats into orbit. “Together we open space to change the world for good,” Virgin Galactic boldly declares on its website. And, for good measure, Branson adds: “We are at the vanguard of a new industry determined to pioneer twenty-first century spacecraft, which will open space to everybody — and change the world for good.”
The New, and Deadly, Space Race
Branson’s astronomical new venture is actually not all that new. It’s nearly a decade and a half old, having been founded in 2004. It has yet to put anyone into space, has been dogged by severe delays and, tragically, one of its pilots was killed on a test flight. If you feel like shelling out $250,000 for the hour-and-a-half flight, you may well be disappointed: it will only be going to the edge of space, not to the moon and back. You may get a similar view out the larger windows of the latest commercial jetliners. But at least the six passengers on each flight will experience hefty g-forces as the spaceplane rockets to escape Earth’s gravity and a few minutes of weak weightlessness once they get 100 kilometres up.
Branson — a dyslexic who almost dropped out of school aged 13, didn’t go to university and started his business life flogging ads for a student publication before going on to sell music and get into planes, trains, soft drinks and lots more — is not alone in his space-tourism quest. He’s trying to rocket ahead of far wealthier rivals Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, two men who made massive fortunes in tech and have since set their apparently visionary sights on space. There’s no doubt that South African-born Musk is currently the darling of the space industry, doing NASA’s heavy lifting by ferrying supplies to the International Space Station — astonishingly with reusable rockets that can land on ocean-floating platforms, a feat the American space agency that landed the first man (person) on the moon has not achieved.
Amazon boss and newspaper owner (Washington Post) Bezos is also a rocket man, although his Blue Origin enterprise has not had the stellar success of Musk. He’s looking to blast people into space in 2019. “Earth in all its beauty,” says the company, “is just our starting place. We are of blue origin, and here is where it begins.” These are all great marketing messages, but with the high price of flight, and the risks to human life, is anyone apart from headline-grabbing celebs and the rich really buying it?
Exporting Our Problems
It’s not just about space tourism either; Musk is intent on taking people to Mars and establishing colonies there so that humankind can save itself after we destroy Earth through greed and environmental destruction. (Will those same destructive traits also not exist among humans if we manage to live on other planets, or will a new, eco-conscious Aryan race be selected for intergalactic travel?)
This is the craft he hopes will get us there:
“It’s important to get a self-sustaining base on Mars because it’s far enough away from earth that [in the event of a war] it’s more likely to survive than a moon base,” Musk said recently. “If there’s a third world war, we want to make sure there’s enough of a seed of human civilisation somewhere else to bring it back and shorten the length of the dark ages,” he added.
So far around 650 people around the only world humans currently inhabit have forked out the quarter-million-dollar fee to get a glimpse of space courtesy of Virgin Galactic. If they paid the full amount and didn’t get mates rates from Richard, that adds up to what looks like an impressive $162.5 million, but space and getting there is not exactly a low-cost undertaking.
And if you’re looking to hop aboard the suborbital flight, you’ll have to wait until 2021 to get aboard, due to the backlog of salivating passengers. So we know there’s a definite taste for space — at least among the moneyed elite. Branson’s galactic mission may be a smash-hit in the near term, but once the new-frontier thrill wears off, the project may well end up like that other airbourne plaything of the well-healed: Concorde — daring and beautiful, yes, but just too expensive for the ordinary person to make it fly.