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Earlier this month, British billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson successfully flew to space, pioneering his brand, Virgo Galactic, to the edge of the outer hemisphere. This week, his co-billionaire, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, took his own… Spacecraft Blue Origin for a spin to the outer limits, managing to get a whole 10 miles (16 km) higher than Sir Richard.
The trips ushered in a new era of “space tourism,” in which untrained people could become astronauts, a title previously reserved for highly trained professional scientists and pilots, to see the curvature of the Earth and enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness. Perfect for that viral Instagram photo for your millions of followers.
But could the idea of space tourism really become anything more than just an overpriced joyride for the wealthy?
The idea of traveling into space has fascinated people for millennia. Humanity has looked to the stars as a navigational aid and as a source of spiritual fulfillment. Even now, Research of the American think tank, the Pew Research Center, suggests that 29 percent of Americans believe in horoscopes.
In the 20th century, as scientific discoveries progressed, space travel became a symbol of political and ideological prestige, with the superpowers of the time, the US and the former Soviet Union, competing for space supremacy.
Both sides put billions of dollars into a series of space programs that created new rockets and satellites and, most famously, caused humans to touch the surface of the moon. It also spawned a series of inventions that were commercialized for wider use, such as scratch-resistant lenses for eyeglasses, memory foam, and LASIK eye surgery.
Now that the Cold War is long over, political pressure to continue state-funded space programs has abated, with governments becoming even more reluctant to spend money after the global financial crisis crippled government budgets in 2007. industry to enter.
For Branson, this month’s venture was the culmination of a long-held dream to embark on space tourism, having first pledged to build a spaceship in 2004, with hopes of launching commercial service by 2007. The program has been delayed for years due to , unsurprisingly, they are facing huge technical challenges, including a fatal crash during a development flight in 2014. The current pandemic has also made things more difficult, forcing Branson to spend the past two years. was forced to sell $650 million worth of Virgin Galactic stock in order to survive. its wider business empire Virgin.
But despite delays, Virgin Galactic succeeded in its quest and pushed space science forward as a result. It developed a unique flight path, with a “mothership” carrying the lead vehicle, VSS Unity, 15 km (9 miles) in the air before releasing Unity and then activating its missiles to fly another 70 km (43 miles) above the surface. flying from Earth, to reach the edge of space. Unity then re-entered Earth’s atmosphere using rotating wings — a technology known as feathering — to glide smoothly back to Earth without the need for a parachute. This meant no parts had to be thrown away, making it completely reusable, as the plane landed at the same location at Spaceport America in New Mexico, USA, allowing space tourists to board and disembark without any problems, just like on a commercial flight.
Likewise, Bezos’ Blue Origin, which flew higher than its arch-rival Virgin Galactic, also uses advanced science with a fully automated two-part missile system, requiring no pilots at all. The launcher, which houses the rocket motor and propellant, separates after launch and flies back on its own to return to the launch pad, while the upper part of the craft – the crew pod – lands safely using parachutes. It is also equipped with a crew ejection system for added safety should any part of the launch go wrong. Fortunately, that was not necessary on this occasion.
Both companies, after years of research and development and suffering losses, are now finally poised to make money, with a reported 8,000 already booking tickets for Virgin Galactic flights, each costing at least $250,000. There is speculation that tickets to fly on Blue Origin will be priced at similar levels. Some 7,600 wealthy people signed up for this week’s flight ticket auction, with the winner paying $28 million, suggesting there will also be a lot of demand, at least from the ultra-wealthy. Analysts at the investment bank Bank of America estimate that the total value of the space industry will rise from $350 billion to a staggering $2.7 billion by 2040.
Before we get too excited though, let’s call this for what it is. This is an entertainment company for the super rich, backed by a formidable PR operation.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are suborbital space vehicles. They don’t yet fly high enough to orbit the Earth and therefore fall into a very different category than – say NASA or SpaceX – founded by another highly successful billionaire entrepreneur, Elon Musk – who used the favorite launch vehicle of the world. NASA has become able to launch the International Space Station or deploy new satellites.
Virgin Galactic has confirmed this and recently replaced its first CEO, former NASA chief of staff George Whitesides, who led much of Virgin Galactic’s research development phase, with Michael Colglazier, who has no space background and was previously head of Disneyland parks.
The new space tourism companies are marketing these pleasure rides as “bringing space to the masses”. It’s true that if you wanted to fly as a space tourist before, you had to mediate with the Russians to get a seat on the Soviet-era Soyuz-class spacecraft for a cool $25 million, like seven people did between 2001 and 2009.
But ticket prices for Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flights will still be sky-high, making the claim absurd. There’s no doubt that seeing the curvature of the Earth can be a life-changing experience, but who are we really inspiring here? Emerging Scientists or the Children of the Billionaire Set? Despite these new craft being relatively energy efficient compared to older space rockets, they still burn tons of fuel going up and down the atmosphere — hardly in the spirit of tackling climate change.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. After all, compared to state-funded programs, private companies have the political cloak of not spending – openly – taxpayer money. Virgin Galactic has funding from the Virgin Group, Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund, the Aabar Investment Group and Boeing, and is also publicly traded on the New York stock market. Blue Origin was funded by the sale of Amazon stock.
In contrast, the NASA Apollo program, which launched humans to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the more recent Space Shuttle program, which retired in 2011, cost US taxpayers an eye-watering $415 billion in cash. from today.
Private space companies follow market forces and compete with each other in a new market. The ego contest has also begun, with Bezos taunting Branson that his ship can fly higher.
This is good. Competition drives creativity, efficiency and the development of new security procedures, as a launch failure would cause a fatal loss of trust for potential customers. The fact that highly driven, charismatic entrepreneurs are the face of private space companies also gives it a sexiness that has galvanized the entire space industry.
However, this obscures the reality that these companies have still benefited from an industry funded with taxpayer support. For example, the New Mexico government has invested nearly $200 million in the Spaceport America facility, with Virgin Galactic as the main tenant. Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man who founded Amazon, runs a multinational technology company that pays very little tax.
In Europe, for example, Amazon posted record sales of 44 billion euros ($51.9 billion) in 2020, but tax returns show it has paid no corporate income tax in Luxembourg, where it has filed tax papers. And while Bezos generously thanked Amazon employees for helping them realize his dream of getting space, warehouse workers at just $15 an hour might be wondering if those gains — $8 billion in net income from the past quarter — might be worth it. a record – perhaps better invested elsewhere?
While it’s a little horrifying that rich people can now call themselves “astronauts,” which no doubt raises eyebrows among professionally trained, real-life astronauts, we shouldn’t underestimate the science behind flying humans safely under such hostile environments. Normalizing space travel could offer opportunities. As Virgin Galactic aims for near-daily flights in the future, these suborbital travel will provide a new platform for science, for example by providing a relatively accessible way to conduct tests in microgravity environments. Blue Origin is also developing larger rockets called New Glen, which aims to compete with SpaceX in longer-range spaceflight, and Blue Moon, to create lunar landers in partnership with NASA.
Cynics may despair at the waste of money, since there are so many other pressing problems here on Earth, such as human poverty. But perhaps space travel is a way to capture the imagination and act as a symbol of human progress. Perhaps, as refinements continue and economies of scale further reduce costs, spaceflight could indeed become accessible to everyone, with spaceflight changing the way people see our precious Earth and offering a new way to advance the science leading to new inventions that benefit all mankind. One can only wonder.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.
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