Virgin Galactic is a spaceflight company that has been developing commercial spacecrafts designed to take tourists into space. The VSS Unity spacecraft could now be just months away from its first flight. The design of this spacecraft is based on SpaceShipOne – the world’s first ever private spacecraft – that carried humans in space 14 years ago.
Progress towards space tourism
VSS Unity recently had a second successful trial. During the test launch, it reached a height of 114,500 feet over California before it made its descent into the Mojave desert. It achieved a speed of Mach 1.9, which is 2,346km per hour.
Virgin Galactic’s first spacecraft, VSS Enterprise, crashed during a test launch in October 2014. So the success of this recent trial is quite promising.
Company owner and business tycoon Richard Branson has revealed that a trip to the edge of space will cost a passenger $250,000, so this will clearly be an experience that is restricted to the elite and most wealthy in society. As of now, 700 passengers have put down their deposits on tickets. Virgin Galactic is building two more spaceships, of the same model, in order to accommodate those who have signed up. In an interview with CNBC, Branson said:
We are now just months away from Virgin Galactic sending people into space and Virgin Orbit placing satellites around the Earth.
However – and understandably so, given the crash of VSS Enterprise – Branson wants to carry out “two or three” more test flights, getting the spacecraft to a suborbital altitude of 264,000 feet. This will get Unity 50 miles above the Earth’s surface (space begins, as is generally accepted, 62 miles up).
When the first commercial flight takes place, Virgin Galactic will have officially created a whole new industry sector: space tourism. There has been some competition, though, to be the first company to earn that accolade. Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin were previously “neck and neck”, according to Branson, to fly tourists into space. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is also a competitor.
But, Virgin Galactic now appears to be ahead. Blue Origin announced that it won’t be flying passengers on its New Shepard suborbital vehicle until next year.
Virgin Galactic’s vision
Branson isn’t just interested in making space tourism a profitable and famous venture. He said:
The pathway that Unity is forging is one that many thousands of us will take over time, and will help share a perspective that is crucial to solving some of humanity’s toughest challenges on planet Earth.
Indeed, being able to view the Earth from space can be a powerful, mind-altering experience. Astronauts report a newfound appreciation for the planet, with profound realisations about its preciousness and fragility. Branson seems to be hinting at how Virgin Galactic flights can be an important source of environmental awareness.
Of course, it matters who will be on these flights. If a highly influential and powerful person were on board, they might want to enact real change in the world based on their planetary awareness. The ideal people to board VSS Unity would be world leaders, politicians in charge of environmental policy, and the chief executives of the fossil fuel industry, the food and drinks industry, the transport industry, and the farming industry.
We have to be able to subsist, thrive, and enjoy life in a way that is in harmony with the Earth’s ecosystems and natural processes. But individual change is just one piece of the puzzle. Those who can affect the most change need to have as much incentive as possible to promote sustainability over profits – and space tourism could play a unique role in this enterprise.
About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe
Sam is a freelance writer who is particularly interested in space exploration, sustainability, tech, and agriculture.