Edge of Space
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|Rola Tassabehji||May 25th 2011|
Last week, in the historic large lecture theatre at the Royal Institution in London, the oldest independent research body in the world, Stephen Attenborough—the Commercial Director for Virgin Galactic—spent two uninterrupted hours mesmerizing a private audience on the future of commercial space travel. By the end of the session, even skeptics like myself, who came in thinking this was another wasted venture for the rich, were converted, captivated by the advancement of human ingenuity and the potential that space travel holds for the future of scientific research and sustainable travel.
It’s been just over a century since the Wright Bothers made their inaugural flight in North Carolina and fifty years since Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. When Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the surface of the moon in 1969, space travel seemed poised to enter a golden era. However, space programs proved prohibitively expensive—and dangerous.
As Virgin’s Attenborough reminded us, in the last fifty years only 550 people have been to space, far fewer than what one would have expected at the time when human spaceflight first began.
But with private industry getting active in the space exploration industry, space travel could become a reality for many more people in the near future. And Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic may be the game changer. It is one of the leading companies in this new industry, working on the launch of SpaceShipTwo, which for $200,000 offers a seat to space enthusiasts who can afford it.
Using revolutionary technology and engineering innovations, this unique spacecraft is in advance stages of testing in the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport in New Mexico.
The “commercial astronauts” will be given three days of training before embarking on the voyage into sub-orbital experience lasting two and a half hours. Already 450 have signed and made deposits. Although Attenborough would not put a definite timeline on when the commercial flights would begin, if all goes to plan, the inaugural flight might take place in a year and a half from now.
A few weeks ago, Virgin Galactic reached a major milestone: successfully testing its unique “feathering re-entry mechanism,” regarded as the most important safety innovation within the whole system. Wing feathering for re-entry relies on aerodynamic design and laws of physics to control speed and altitude, allowing the ship to safely reenter the atmosphere after a trip into space—the part of the flight that is considered the most technically challenging.
Although $200,000 is still substantial, compared with the 7-digit sum that outer space research typically costs, most scientists see this development as marking a new era in the history of mankind, with huge potential to advance science, from agriculture to biology to solar cell research.
As Dr Alan Stern, Associate Vice President of the Southwest Research Institute put it, “It’s revolutionary”. His institute has already paid a deposit for two scientists to travel on Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo and plans to secure another six seats.
LA to Abu Dhabi in 2 hours?
Another of Virgin Galactic’s long-term plans is travel outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Imagine a trip from London to Sydney in two and a half hours? or Abu Dhabi to LA in two to three hours? A couple of years ago, Abu Dhabi based Aabar Investment, controlled by Abu Dhabi government, purchased a 32 percent stake in Sir Richard Branson’s commercial space project for $280 million USD, so the idea of using Abu Dhabi as a hub is not too far fetched.
As for fuel consumption, Virgin claims the trips into space will have lower carbon emissions per passenger than a flight across the Atlantic. Fuel consumption is reduced because both vehicles (carrier and spaceship) are made entirely of carbon composite. Releasing the spaceship at altitude (instead of using conventional take-off) also means it does not have to use fuel to get through the lower, denser regions of the atmosphere.
The special re-entry innovation also enables it to avoid the need for heat-shields on re-entry, saving weight, fuel, and money.
There are other companies that are working on similar projects, but for most observers Virgin is likely to be one of the first names leading space tourism. Irrespective of who leads the race, even for those of us lacking deep pockets, physical strength, or aspirations to become astronauts, space travel still captures the imagination like no other human endeavor.
Rola Tassabehji writes for Green Prophet, from where this article is adapted.