IMAGINE WHEN MAN FIRST set sail across an ocean and after staying close to the safety of the coast, finally ventured into the deep waters and eventually arrived in continents across half the earth. And even earlier, someone in a tribal world, exploring his way across the dark forest to find another living land. First is the discovery, then the explorers, traders, adventurers and conquerors. Finally, the person, who is none of that, and merely goes because he is curious and the infrastructure is now present for the tourist. That is when the foreign land becomes part of the remit of everyone. Humanity has now arrived at that moment again, except that it is not land but space.
Richard Branson, the billionaire who uses his own person and antics as the biggest marketing weapon of his companies, became the one to open the doors of space tourism by taking the maiden trip of his spaceflight company Virgin Galactic. He timed it so because early next week another billionaire, but with pockets that go so deep that he could have 20 Bransons in them, was planning his own space tourism inauguration. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, who has just stepped down as its CEO after building one of the greatest companies the world has ever seen, will now devote much of his energies to his space venture, Blue Origin. Like Branson, as his company opens its ticket counter to take people to space, Bezos himself will be on that tour.
It is important for both of them to be seen taking the first flight. Branson might say that he had always had a dream as a child to go to space and Bezos might have a grander vision of using space to be a fallback for human civilisation as the earth’s resources get expended, but space is dangerous territory precisely because it is so new. Humans were sailing for thousands of years before they ventured across the oceans. In contrast, we have taken to the air just a century ago and it has only been half that time that the entire resources of superpowers got together to put highly trained humans into space and on the moon. Even then there have been deaths and unforeseen accidents. For someone to pay to go on a space tour, he must first be certain of returning alive. What Branson and Bezos are doing first is to give reassurance, the biggest one that counts, by staking their own lives as guarantee. The message—if it is safe for me, why should you hesitate?
There are a couple of differences in the two flights. For one, Bezos does not believe that Branson reached space. Branson’s flight went to a distance of 53 miles over the earth.
Scientific American reported, “The Unity 22 mission lifted off from Spaceport America with the company’s VSS Unity spaceplane climbing to an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,000 meters) with the help of its ‘mothership’ VMS Eve, a WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane. After reaching this altitude, VMS Eve let the space plane go and from there it rocketed up to 53 miles (86 km) above Earth’s surface before returning to Earth and landing not too far from where it took off at Spaceport America.”
But Bezos thinks that space is only after what is known as the Kármán line, or 100 kilometres over earth. A couple of days before the Branson flight, Blue Origin tweeted comparing their flights: “From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name. For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line. Only 4% of the world recognizes a lower limit of 80 km or 50 miles as the beginning of space.
New Shepard flies above both boundaries. One of the many benefits of flying with Blue Origin.” In an accompanying chart, it also said while their vehicle was a rocket, Virgin’s was a mere aircraft. But that might only be a matter of insignificant detailing. Because, if you are on either one of them as a space tourist, there won’t be much of a difference in what you experience (even though Blue Origin also claimed in the tweet it had larger windows). Zero gravity, the ethereal view of earth as a fragile blue globe, etcetera, will all be present with Virgin Galactic, too.
A seat to go to space isn’t going to be within reach of most people. Virgin Galactic has announced the price and it is going to be US$250,000. That, in Indian rupees, comes to Rs 1.86 crore, which is what a small flat in Mumbai would cost for a short ride to nowhere. But the company claims that 600 people from more than 50 countries have already booked. Blue Origin is yet to start taking reservations but you can fill up a form on their website for early access to pricing and bookings. But they did auction a seat for someone to go on the maiden flight along with Bezos and his brother. The amount they received: a whopping US$28 million, or Rs 208 crore.
When they take off along with two other passengers, including an 83-year-old female aviator who always dreamt of going to space and is getting a free ticket, there will be no pilot in the spacecraft. Reuters reported: “New Shepard is a 60-foot-tall (18.3-meters) and fully autonomous rocket-and-capsule combo that cannot be piloted from inside the spacecraft. The crew is set to include only civilians and none of Blue Origin’s employees or staff astronauts, three people familiar with the company’s plans told Reuters… New Shepard lifts off from a standing position on a launch pad, like traditional rocket launches. With Virgin Galactic, a rocket-powered spaceplane was dropped from a carrier plane in mid-air. New Shepard, like Virgin Galactic’s flight, will not enter into orbit around Earth, but will take the passengers some 62 miles up (100 km) before the capsule returns by parachute. Virgin Galactic’s flight reached 53 miles (86 km) above Earth.”
The space tourism market will begin with these flights. Earlier, it was thought countries would herald the space age but, as with seafaring voyages, private enterprise and competition for market seem to be its future. Besides Bezos and Branson, there is the third billionaire—Elon Musk—who has the grandest vision of all, of starting a colony on Mars. His SpaceX has been assiduously working towards that end and Musk himself has said that he will be on that flight. SpaceX is already on the space tourism bandwagon. Its spacecraft does supply runs to the International Space Station (ISS) and it auctioned four seats recently for US$55 million or Rs 410 crore each to a four-man crew of private citizens to spend a week on the ISS. Such impossible prices will change as competition picks up and volumes make their way. More players will enter. It will still never be an ordinary man’s pursuit, but it is possible to envision a future in which not just the obscenely wealthy can get the feel of space.