Sir Richard Branson is now an astronaut. The 70-year-old billionaire was shot at the stars in a fully manned Virgin Galactic spacecraft on Sunday morning, at least nine days before rival space mogul Jeff Bezos hopes to try to reach the edge of space in a Blue Origin ship.
The success of Branson’s flight is more than a victory in a space race among billionaires; it fires the initial pistol into a new era that could open up space travel beyond government programs to non-professional astronauts, and in doing so will provide further impetus to a rapidly evolving space economy.
Following Sunday’s success, Virgin Galactic expects to launch commercial flights into suborbital space next year. So far, the firm has sold about 600 estimated tickets, reaching a price of approximately $ 250,000 each. Some of the paid passengers include celebrities like Tom Hanks and Lady Gaga, as well as their billionaire, Elon Musk.
“I’ve wanted to do this since I was little,” Branson said after his return to the mainland on Sunday. “But honestly, nothing could prepare you for the vision of the Earth from space.”
Always a salesman, Branson has secured a major victory for Virgin Galactic, which he founded. But the richest man in the world – Jeff Bezos – it also competes for a piece of the commercial space market with its company, Blue Origin.
And Bezos ’ambitions don’t end there. Blue Origin also wants to build infrastructure in space and help NASA return to the moon, as does Elon Musk’s private space firm, SpaceX.
Blue Origin was part of a team that lost to SpaceX on a multi-million dollar contract to build NASA’s next human landing system to transport astronauts to the lunar surface. Bezos’ firm filed an official protest to answer the award. A resolution on this is expected sometime in August.
Meanwhile, Blue Origin is building a new massive rocket, called the New Glenn, that will compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. It is estimated that this rocket will start flying sometime next year.
The race to space
Historically, space has been a domain that belonged only to the military or governments and their respective space agencies, such as NASA and Roscosmos of Russia. But in recent years, there has been a paradigm shift: more and more private companies have made a name for themselves by putting hardware in space.
Instead of building all the hardware itself, NASA has turned to the private sector to help reduce costs and stimulate innovation. The U.S. space agency is reaping the rewards of this work now with its commercial crew and cargo programs.
SpaceX has successfully launched three different astronaut missions into space, reducing the cost of space travel by millions. Right now, a seat in the Crew Dragon capsule costs NASA about $ 55 million, compared to the $ 90 million NASA paid for a seat on Roscosmos for a trip to the Soyuz.
While Musk, Bezos, and Branson are currently capturing the headlines, it was another billionaire named Peter Diamandis who took the first significant steps toward opening up space to commercial players in the late 1990s, creating a competition that he hoped it would spark a thriving private space industry: the X Prize.
That initial competition challenged teams around the world to build a probe capable of carrying humans into space several times. The first team to successfully pitch (and do so twice in a short period of time) would win a $ 10 million prize.
It would be almost a decade before the award was claimed. A team led by Burt Rutan built a small rocket-powered vehicle called SpaceShipOne, which was designed to launch from an airplane, like NASA’s old X-15s.
The success of the spacecraft was an inspiration to many, as Diamandis hoped, and caught the attention of one space enthusiast in particular: Sir Richard Branson. He acquired Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, and founded his own space company, Virgin Galactic in 2004. He then dedicated himself to building the next-generation spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo.
The upgraded ship would carry a total of six passengers into space and launch a thriving space tourism industry. Or at least that’s what I expected it to happen. Building something that flew into space turned out to be quite a challenge. Virgin Galactic suffered losses during a catastrophic failure of its SpaceShipTwo in 2014, which resulted in the death of one of its pilots.
But Branson and his team of engineers persevered. This determination bore fruit when the company finally arrived in space in 2018. Additional test flights, including one with the company’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, laid the groundwork for the historic flight. of Branson on Sunday.
“Today was the result of years of work and the enormous sacrifice on the part of many,” George Whitesides, chairman of the Virgin Galactic Space Advisory Committee, told Al Jazeera. “Increasing spaceflight will change the future of humanity for the better, and that flight helps make that happen.”
Branson and three other crew members tied up against SpaceShipTwo on Sunday morning after a 90-minute delay due to bad weather in the New Mexico desert in the US. The astronaut quartet along with their two pilots successfully completed a suborbital test flight at the edge of the seat designed to demonstrate that Branson’s space plane is ready for those passengers who can afford the ultimate exciting journey.
Pilots David Mackay and Michael Masucci complete the billionaire’s crew aboard Unity, along with Virgin astronaut coach Beth Moses, flight engineer Colin Bennett and the company’s vice president of government relations, Sirisha Bandla.
Branson’s journey began dramatically, as Virgin’s Galactic’s huge carrier aircraft, with the rocket-propelled VSS Unity spacecraft, propelled under its wing, withdrew from the space launch site. Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, at 8:40 local time (14:40 GMT) after a 90 minute delay due to bad weather.
The company made all the stops on the live broadcast, which was led by Stephen Colbert, and included a live performance by R&B musician Khalid after the crew returned to Earth. It was eye-catching, it advertised, it was everything you expected from a thriving commercial tourism company.
The theatricality was backed by the success of the actual mission, with the ship, called Unity, approaching an altitude just above 80 km (NASA’s definition of space), giving Branson and to his five crewmates about three minutes weightless along with stunning views of the Earth before they plunged back into the atmosphere to make a spiral descent back to the launch site of Virgin’s New Mexico.
The success of the flight essentially surpassed Bezos, which plans its own suborbital space flight next week.
Bezos announced he would fly along with his brother and an as-yet-unnamed mysterious bidder who won a place on the fly during a private auction last month to benefit Club for the Future, the Blue Origin charity that supports science, technology, engineering and math.
The winning bid resulted in $ 28 million.
The trio will be joined by Wally Funk, 82, a accomplished aviator who has been waiting six decades to go into space. She was originally part of NASA’s women’s program in space called Mercury 13, a group of women candidates for astronauts who in 1961 underwent the same tests that NASA’s original group of astronauts underwent. , the Mercury 7.
Funk, who is about to become the oldest person to fly into space next week – a record previously held by John Glenn when he flew on the space shuttle Discovery at the age of 77 – has never given up. to his dream of becoming an astronaut.
“I never let anything stop me,” Funk told Al Jazeera. “I know that my body and my mind can take anything that any space team wants to give me: high-altitude chamber test, which is fine; centrifuge test, which I know I can do five and six Gs. These things are easy for me. “
Funk holds the record, set in 1961, for the longest time in an isolation tank, with more than 10 hours of time and shattering John Glenn’s record. This experience will be useful as Blue Origin flight participants must pass certain medical qualifications as part of the flight requirements.
Funk, along with another big name in the space industry, Elon Musk, has bought tickets to Virgin Galactic. It is unclear when she will fly or whether Funk will keep her reservation as she bought it before being selected by Blue Origin.
In response to Musk’s purchase over the weekend, Branson said he could match up one day and buy a ticket on a SpaceX trip. And Musk was there to cheer Branson off the sidelines on Sunday.
Compete for customers
As a sign of the heating competition for the commercial spaceflight market, Blue Origin took to Twitter on July 9 to highlight the differences between it and Virgin Galactic, noting the differences in altitude and the number of flights. test. Blue Origin also boasted that it has the “biggest windows” in the space. (That’s until you look at the dome of the International Space Station).
Former NASA astronaut Tom Jones helped shed light on which design is actually better. According to the old four-wheeled spacewheel, both designs have their advantages. “Perhaps the simplest capsule design is cheaper to develop and fly than a spacecraft, but it is possible that the spacecraft can fly more often because it does not require a parachute, but is based on a runway,” he said. say Al Jazeera.
Despite the benefits of his company’s Twitter, Bezos took to Instagram to congratulate Branson and his team after landing, posting a note saying “congratulations on the flight. I can’t wait to join the club!”
It took a step further Monday after the FAA finally approved Blue Origin bringing humans into space with its New Shephard launch system.
If all goes according to plan, Bezos will become the second private space mogul to join the “billionaires in space” club on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing.