On the 28th April 2001, US millionaire Dennis Tito became the first private civilian to venture into space, spending over a week at the International Space Station. Cashing out a massive $20 million for a place on the Russian Soyuz rocket, Tito would become the catalyst for other adventure-seeking “elites”. Lauren Bryant questions if this is simply another reinforcement of inequality between the rich and poor? Will it ever be accessible to everyone?
In the last 20 years, Tito’s legacy has been taken a step further, with billionaires like Branson and Bezos jetting off into space via aircrafts funded and engineered by their own companies.
Founded in 2004, Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic aimed to one day provide suborbital, commercial passenger flights into space. Their first major attempt came in October 2014, with the SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise. However, due to a combination of human error and poor safeguarding by the FAA, the test flight ended tragically, crashing in the California desert. Co-pilot Mike Alsbury was killed, whilst pilot Pete Siebold suffered crippling injuries.
Six years later, alongside 5 other crew members, Branson fulfilled a lifelong dream of travelling to the edge of space. On the 11th July, the VSS Unity spacecraft engaged in a sub-orbital flight around 55 miles above the New Mexico desert, lasting 1.5 hours. Beating rival Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin space company, Branson became the first civilian to enter space aboard a craft he helped finance. Originally, Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft was intended to carry out a further two tests before its founder would fly. However, the announcement of Bezos’ flight date, the 20th July, seemingly accelerated Branson’s own.
I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars. Now I'm an adult in a spaceship looking down to our beautiful Earth. To the next generation of dreamers: if we can do this, just imagine what you can do https://t.co/Wyzj0nOBgX #Unity22 @virgingalactic pic.twitter.com/03EJmKiH8V
— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) July 11, 2021
Nine days after Branson, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and three companions completed an 11-minute trip to space, travelling in his company’s spaceplane, the New Shepard. On board were the oldest and youngest humans ever to fly to space- 82-year-old Wally Funk, and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen. At the peak of its flight path, the New Shepard reached an altitude of 66.5 miles, over 10 miles higher than Branson’s craft.
Over 600 people have already reserved tickets on Virgin Galactic’s next flight, with starting prices at $450,000 per seat. Although names have not yet been publicised, CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, is among the ticket holders with other seats likely to be filled by A-List celebrities, or wealthy business people.
Many scientists fear that the growth of the space tourism industry, and subsequent increase in rocket flights, may harm the Earth’s atmosphere and add to climate change.
Blue Origin crafts are said to produce less pollution
Branson’s spaceplanes are powered by hybrid engines. These burn rubber, dispersing a layer of soot into the atmosphere. Experts have claimed that one of these flights alone, lasting a mere hour or so, can produce the same amount of pollution as a 10-hour trans-Atlantic flight. If Virgin Galactic succeed in their endeavour to fly tourists into space several times a day, this could cause significant damage. Blue Origin crafts are said to produce less pollution, propelled by a combination of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, releasing mostly water and other minor combustion products.
Karen Rosenlof told Space.com, “You are emitting pollutants in places where you don’t normally emit it”, “We really need to understand. If we increase these things, what is the potential damage?”. As with anything new or innovative, there is the unknown.
For most, the $450,000 price tag is an insane amount of money
Yes, these are exciting times for space exploration technology, but it feels as though the majority are being left behind. For most, the $450,000 price tag is an insane amount of money, and when considering that the average wage in the UK is approximately £31,000, it is also unattainable. “We’re here to make space more accessible to all”, claimed Branson, post-flight. Yet, experts agree that “affordable” flights of even four or five-figures are, at best, a few decades away. Most in our current society will remain as bystanders, sacrificed for the possibilities of future generations, and cheaper tickets to space. Unlike Branson and Bezos, whose wealth has allowed them to fulfil a childhood dream, others will not be so fortunate.
Is space tourism simply another playground for the ultra-rich? A step up from extravagant holidays and expensive cars? Or, are we judging it prematurely? Travelling into space is the first step to expansion and exploration. One day, these billionaire joyrides might amount to something of scientific or humanitarian value, and only time will tell.
In-article image courtesy of @richardbranson via twitter.com. No changes were made to this image.
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