Virgin Galactic Successfully Flies Its Founder into Space, Indicative of Bright Prospects of Space Tourism
The discourse of a space tourism industry, aka space tourism, is getting closer to reality. On July 11, Virgin Galactic successfully flew its founder, Sir Richard Branson, and five others out of the mesosphere layer. The moment is broadcast live, and you can watch the replay on Virgin Galactic's YouTube channel.
Before soaring itself to break through the speed of Mach 3 (± 3,704 km /h), the VSS Unity rocket aircraft that Branson was riding et al. first carried by the VMS eve aircraft carrier. When it reached an altitude of about 46,000 feet (± 14,020 meters), VSS Unity was released and flew by itself to an altitude of 86 kilometers.
At that point, the VSS Unity rocket engine was turned off, and passengers experienced microgravity — not to zero gravity, but already able to provide a cordless sensation — for a few minutes while enjoying the panoramic view of Earth before the plane finally launched and landed again. In total, the flight lasted for about an hour.
According to Branson, the moment of the inaugural test with one entire cabin crew (2 crew, four passengers) was very important for Virgin Galactic because it can give an idea of what the space tourism experience will be offered to prospective customers. In the next few months, Virgin Galactic plans to undergo two more tests before finally starting its commercial operations in 2022.
It said that so far, there have been 600 people willing to buy tickets for Virgin Galactic's inaugural flight next year. The price is not low — approximately $250,000 per ticket — but the long-term vision is to reduce those fares to as low as $40,000 per ticket and execute about 400 flights annually.
But Virgin Galactic isn't the only company busy making this space tourism discourse a reality. Blue Origin, a rival company, founded by Jeff Bezos, will also run flight testing on July 20. Just like Branson, Bezos as the founder of the company, will also be a passenger.
In contrast, Blue Origin claims to provide a more authentic space tourism experience because its plane named New Shepard will fly up to an altitude of 100 kilometers before finally sliding back to Earth. The altitude point of 100 km, according to Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, is the Kármán Line, a.k.a. the line that separates Earth's atmosphere from space.
On the other hand, Virgin Galactic uses the standards set by NASA, which considers anyone who manages to break through an altitude of 80 km as an astronaut. Regardless of height, the experience offered by both companies is more or less the same.
Speaking of space missions run by private companies, we certainly shouldn't forget SpaceX. In September, the company founded by Elon Musk intends to fly four people into orbit (about 540 km) over the next few days. According to UBS, the value of the space tourism industry is expected to reach $3 billion annually by 2030.