By Dhiraj Kumar
In an age when going out of the house is prohibited due to Covid-19 restrictions, billionaire Richard Branson took a ride to space in his own spacecraft!
It’s been 52 years since Neil Amstrong and Buzz Aldrin created history when they landed on the moon in 1969. Every person who remained on earth, looked up into the sky aspiring to travel to space in their lifetime. Post that many astronauts have landed onto earth’s satellite and taken to space trained by global agencies like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Indian Space Research Organisation, Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities, European Space Agency, or the China National Space Administration (CNSA). When Indian pilot Rakesh Sharma traveled to space on 3rd April 1984 and spoke to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi aboard the Russian Soyuz T-11, he ignited the dreams of a billion Indians to travel to space. His famous words from space were “Saare Jahan Se Acha” when the prime minister asked him how India looks from space.
Apart from astronauts who are the professionals who take space travel, cosmonauts are the non-professional staff like engineers and scientists who also travel to space to help or carry out scientific experiments or any technical help that may be needed. US citizen, Charles David Walker was the first non-governmental human to fly to space in 1984. Dennis Anthony Tito became the first entrepreneur to become the world’s first space tourist followed by Mark Richard Shuttleworth of South Africa and the third space tourist recorded in history was an entrepreneur and engineer Gregory Hammond Olsen while others also joined the bandwagon in subsequent years. This travel to space by entrepreneurs triggered a race amongst the billionaires of the world who in the self-actualization phase of their lives showed great interest in space tourism for ordinary enthusiasts. The three billionaires who dreamt of heralding a new era in space tourism are the founder of the Virgin Group, Richard Branson, founder and Executive Chairman of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, and the CEO and Chief Engineer of Space X, Elon Musk.
The first to start the journey was the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos who founded his space company Blue Origin in the year 2000. Jeff was fascinated by space and the night sky in his childhood. In an interview with the American newspaper Miami Herald, Jeff stated that he wanted “to build space hotels, amusement parks, and colonies for 2 million or 3 million people who would be in orbit. The whole idea is to preserve the earth”. His goal was to be able to evacuate humans. “The planet would become a park”, he said. For the past two decades, Blue Origin has been experimenting with its technologies intending to make “access to space cheaper and more reliable through reusable launch vehicles”.
Second, in line was billionaire Elon Musk who founded the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) in 2002 and took away the monopoly of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in launching rockets and astronauts into space. SpaceX became the first private company to send astronauts to orbit and also the first to reach the International Space Station. With multiple achievements to its credit, SpaceX is innovating new technologies to make space tourism a more common reality.
Billionaire Richard Branson not to be left far behind envisioned the need to push the need for space tourism and founded his company Virgin Galactic (VG) as early as 2004 intending to provide suborbital flights to space tourists. The parent company Virgin Group Ltd. founded by Branson had its iconic airline Virgin Atlantic which was founded in 1984, based out of the United Kingdom. Hence, he was not entirely new to air travel but space tourism had to be researched, experimented and understood. The first flight under Virgin Galactic was planned in 2010 but was delayed until 2018 when the maiden spaceflight took place in 2018 by the VG fleet VSS Unity to push the envelope for space tourism.
It’s an irony that though Blue Origin was the first to start operations, it is Virgin Galactic which was founded last amongst the three companies, to take its historic flight to space under tourism in 2021.
Despite several deadline extensions Richard Branson prepped up for his space travel in 2021. He finally received the license, post intense testing and pilot tests, to fly paying customers to the edge of space in his Virgin Galactic rocket plane by the US Federal Aviation Administration. Millionaires and billionaires are paying up large sums of money to participate in history by traveling to space. Branson claims to have over 500 super-wealthy individuals with “deposits” waiting to be taken on a ride to space. Virgin Galactic spaceport in New Mexico, Southwestern United States is the launch pad of all future space flights with tourists.
While the race between the three billionaires was on, Richard Branson created history when he took off on a Virgin Galactic aircraft to the edge of the earth on the 11th of July 2021 with a qualified crew on board. Virgin Galactic employees Beth Moses, Colin Bennett, Sirisha Bandla, and pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci boarded the SpaceShipTwo, a winged plane with a single rocket motor, accompanied Branson on this historic trip. Sirisha Bandla is a Guntur, Andhra Pradesh born is an aeronautical engineer who is working as the vice president of government affairs for Virgin Galactic and became the fourth Indian ever to travel to space.
On the designated date, the spacecraft began its journey at 8:30 am MT and climbed to about 50,000 feet in the air. To understand the definition of space travel one must understand the significance of the Karman line named after physicist Theodore Von Karman whose research defined the limits of the earth’s atmosphere. The Karman line is the distance from earth’s sea level to 100 kilometers into space though the United States of America considers 80 kilometers above the sea level at the end of earth’s atmosphere and the starting of space.
Branson and his team were aboard the SpaceShipTwo, an air-launched suborbital spaceflight that was attached to the twin-fuselage mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, and is designed to detach itself from the mothership at a designated height in the sky. Forty-five minutes after take-off, the SpaceShipTwo detached from its mothership and dropped momentarily before its engine jumped to life and the vehicle swooped upward into space towards the Karman line. The Virgin flight was designed to reach nearly 86 kilometers into the air. Live visuals beamed from Branson’s journey into space and views could see the crew strapped to their seat belts enjoying the view outside their windows. CNN reported, “At the top of the flight path, more than 50 miles high, the vehicle was suspended in weightlessness for a few minutes, allowing the passengers to enjoy panoramic views of the Earth and space as SpaceShipTwo flipped onto its belly”. It was an emotional moment for Richard Branson who wrote a letter addressed to his heroic mother Eve Branson before his space flight. His twenty-year hard work had paid off. Branson who is 70 years old and an iconic business leader in the world of business, led by example to travel to space giving hope to hundreds of people who are lining up to live their dream of space tourism.
This historic flight opens up a huge opportunity in the space of wealthy non-professionals who desire to travel to space. For wealthy people, space tourism is a new addition to their bucket list, an unparalleled thrill. In a world of almost eight billion people, only a handful can ever boast of traveling beyond the borders of the earth. With tickets ranging from $200,000 and $250,000, it will still be out of reach for non-wealthy individuals until some billionaire takes pity and opens a lottery system to pick up ordinary people to make their dream come true. (Virgin is keen to take two space tourists in a lucky draw by taking donations for humanity). The future is bright for space enthusiasts but it will take decades before it becomes a common occurrence in travel.
While the world’s billionaires will queue up for space tourism, the rest of the ordinary mortals are at work from home!
(Dhiraj Kumar is an author and writer and he is writing his first book. The views expressed are personal opinion of the author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @authordhiraj.)