Virgin Galactic ride: Race for space may not just be rich man's fun & game

Richard Branson took a trip on a Virgin Galactic spaceship on Sunday
In Robert Heinlein’s classic short story, The Man Who Sold the Moon (1949), a tycoon na­m­ed Delos D Harriman is ob­sessed with being the pion­eer who first reaches the moon, and he wants to control as much lunar real estate as pos­sible. He lies, cheats, bribes, begs and persuades other mo­n­eybags to invest in his ven­ture, which ultimately succ­eeds. But his company’s board refuses to allow him to risk his life by getting onto a rocket!

It seems Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have better control of their respect­ive boards in real-life than the fictional Harriman. Branson took a trip on Virgin Galactic’s spaceship VSS Unity on Sunday, zipping all the way to 80 km above Earth’s surface.

Bezos intends to board Blue Origin’s New Shepard next Tuesday (July 20), along with his brother, for a flight that will soar 100 km above the surface. Musk intends ultimately to go to Mars, or at least he says he wants to establish a colony there.

Between them, these bill­ionaires could create an enti­rely new line in adventure tou­r­ism. Well-heeled tourists with a yen for the unusual can alre­ady go skydiving at Ever­est Base Camp, trek the Antar­ctic desert, or take a chopper tour of the Andes. Now they can take a flight into space as well.

Virgin Galactic is selling tickets at $250,000 a seat for its space flights and it already has over 600 bookings. Anybody who gets on a Virgin Galactic spaceship (there are three) will probably be a lot more com­for­table than somebody trekking the Antarctic, or skydiving at Base Camp. The spaceships are stowed in the belly of a car­rier aircraft and flown up to 15,000 m. Then the craft is released and uses its own ro­c­kets to go up till around 80 km. The spaceships land normally. Total flight time is around two-and-a-half hours and weight­less time is around 15 minutes.

Blue Origin’s New Shep­herd is a rocket that blasts off like a rocket from the ground launch site, and lands on its tail unmanned. It’s had 15 test flights without a crew so far. At around 100 km up, the crew module detaches and then parachutes slowly down to the ground. The weightless time is likely to be far less — maybe around 5 minutes or so.

This sort of flight will invol­ve acceleration and decelera­tion, which creates gravita­tional forces at multiples of what we normally feel on Earth as well as weightless periods. Pilots and astronauts have to be fit and well trained in order to endure high “G-forces” without blacking out, but tourists buying expensive tickets won’t necessarily be in super physical condition. They will need to be protected by good engineering design.

Think of being in a super­fast elevator or a bullet train — your body needs to be well anc­hored to prevent all sorts of na­s­ty accidents, as the appar­ent gravity changes. The seats or couches on these spacecraft will need to be carefully desi­gned and cushioned to ensure the millionaires taking the trip don’t suffer ill-effects. In addi­tion, there will be heat genera­ted by atmospheric friction as the spaceship or rocket comes back to Earth. Heat shields will need to be installed to prevent burning up. The cabins will need excellent climate control. The technology of these craft is designed to keep tourists in luxu­­rious comfort, and safe. 

All this stuff could find application­s in other areas of transport sa­fety, including fast trains and cars.

These spacecraft are way faster than standard commer­cial flights. Concorde — the commercial supersonic jet that was too expensive to fly — had a top speed of about Mach 2 or 2,100 kmph. The Airbus (A-380) has a top speed of 1,185 kmph. Concorde used to do a New York-London flight in just under three hours.

Unity hits speeds of Mach 3 plus or 3,200 kmph, which puts it in the same speed-zone as the fastest warplane ever built, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. This means it could fly NY-London in under two hours. It’s con­cei­vable these spacecraft designs will spark a new line of hyper­sonic airliners.

In Harriman’s story, he’s prevented from taking a space flight by a board resolution. This could be mirrored by insu­rance companies refusing to cover risks for tourists. Indeed, I have no idea how actuaries will price the risks. But let’s put it this way: there’s a lot of money riding on the line when Branson, or Bezos, or anybody who can pay $250,000 for a joyride, is going up in one of these. So I’m sure they’ll figure out models for insurance.

When it comes to broader issues of safety, however, these flights are almost guaranteed to make space safer in one critical way. There’s over 30,000 pieces of debris ranging from the small (10 cm across) to the large (dead satellites with masses of tonnes) orbiting Earth at speeds of 28,000 kmph. These represent a major hazard for anyone in space. If there are billionaires going up there on a regular basis, there will be every reason to develop technology to clear some of this away. That can’t be a bad thing.

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