by S. Prasad Ganti
In a space of ten days, two spacecraft carried different sets of people to the edge of the space and brought them back to Earth. There are differences in their approaches to their respective missions. Much is being made of the billionaires involved in the so-called space race. With some questioning on the priorities for going into space instead of solving the worldly problems. What does it mean for the future of space travel ? Can lesser mortals like yours truly be likely to get there ?
Richard Branson went in a plane called Spaceship Two – “VSS Unity”. This plane had to be carried to a certain altitude on top of another aircraft. Once free from its mother aircraft (called “White Knight”), VSS Unity fired its rocket engines on its journey to the edge of space. And came back and landed on a runway. As a result, he went a little lower. Jeff Bezos went to the official edge of space called the Karman line about 60 miles above the Earth’s surface by launching in a rocket called “RSS Next Step”. His capsule separated from the rocket and came down with a parachute to land. He also spent a lot more fuel and wasted a part of the rocket in doing so. Only the first part of his rocket which came back and landed, is reusable. Branson’s model seems to be more economical but complex from an operational standpoint.
Branson’s spacecraft needs two pilots and the mother aircraft another two. While Bezos rocket is totally automated. No pilots onboard ! Branson’s total journey time was about an hour while Bezos was done in about ten minutes. What these missions have accomplished is just grazing the edge of the space and falling back. They did not circle the Earth nor go to any other world like the moon or any other planet. Those will come later. But it is a small step for mankind.
These space rides sound very much like the airplane rides of the earlier years. Wherein passengers were taken in an airplane for a few minutes around the airport for hefty sums of money. They were not even travelling from place to place, just circling in the sky over the same place. But from those humble beginnings we have arrived at transcontinental and intercontinental travels. Today, air travel is not a newsworthy item. Unless there is a crash.
One way to look at billionaires going into space is that it is all private sector sector investment which is building up new business models – whether it is Elon Musk launching cargo and crew to the International space station or Bezos and Branson launching space tourism or establishing colonies in space. No tax dollars are funding any of these initiatives. Governments cannot be accused of mis-prioritizing.
Existence of the world hunger problem does not mean that five star restaurants stop serving elaborate meals, it does not mean that someone should stop going to Starbucks to have a cup of coffee. Progress on the Earth and in space can happen in parallel. Space technologies do solve problems on the Earth. Satellites enable weather prediction and global communications. It is all about business models which sustain economies which can help the poor. When there is spending, whether buying a cup of coffee or going into space, it creates employment for others.
Where I see this going is that in the next year or two, there will be routine flights carrying passengers to the edge of space. Much like Elon Musk’s Space-X routinely carries cargo and crew to space now. It will still be very expensive and be only for the elite. A decade down the line, the costs will come down which may still be beyond the reach of the common man. But in the next three to five decades, space travel will become like what air travel is today. It will not be a newsworthy item anymore. May not be the subject of any blogs either! Unless there is an accident. Maybe there will be private pilots like me flying those spacecraft, but I will be long gone by then into the space without the help of any spacecraft!