Last week saw the tragic crash of Virgin Galactic test plane SpaceShipTwo, a commercial vehicle designed to fly passengers to the edge of space. The plane broke up over the Mojave Desert when the aerobrake system activated too early, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injuring the pilot, Peter Siebold. The Gryphon honours the memory of Michael Alsbury by taking a closer look at the space tourism industry, wishing Peter Siebold a healthy recovery.
‘Space tourism’ is a modern term, coined to assist ambitious companies with future plans to offer commercial flights into Earth’s orbit for a hefty fee. There are several companies such as Boeing, XCOR Aerospace and SpaceX currently working on space tourism projects, but Virgin Galactic remains the most famous.
Virgin Galactic is a British commercial spaceflight company within the Virgin Group, founded in 2004 by Richard Branson and Burt Rutan. The company hopes to provide suborbital spaceflights to space tourists, suborbital launches for space science missions, and orbital launches of small satellites. While the idea behind viable space flight is an admirable one, it is hard to be as supportive when viewed from a social perspective.
Virgin Galactic tickets cost up to £150,000, with the company having collected over £50 million in deposits so far. After the accident, 20 of the 700 ticket holders cancelled their flights but there is still high demand with a waiting list boasting the likes of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. Looking at Virgin Galactic’s star-studded waiting list of the super-rich begs the question: could space tourism become a social divider?
The ticket price alone is enough to ensure that only those with a high level of disposable income can afford one. Of course, the cost of space travel will decrease with time, but unfortunately space flights still – and always will – require a hefty amount of fuel, meaning there is a limit to how far those costs can fall.
Consider the recent blockbuster ‘Elysium’, which saw the upper echelons of society living high above the Earth in a Utopian space environment with the rest of the population left behind on the surface of the planet. While this situation was exaggerated for the purposes of Hollywood, it now doesn’t seem so far-fetched to claim that space above our planet is in danger of becoming the private playground of a very select few, living (literally and figuratively) above and beyond the rest of society.
Virgin Galactic has also drawn attention from environmental agencies which criticise the implications of space flights regularly burning up large amounts of rocket fuel in the atmosphere. Aeroplanes already produce large amounts of gases which contribute to climate change so the introduction of another fuel-hungry, greenhouse gas emitting form of transport can’t be defended from an environmental standpoint.
Since the incident, Richard Branson has pledged to find the cause of the crash and remains dedicated to carrying on the progress towards viable space flights. This endeavour has already claimed the life of one pilot and seriously injured another, therefore this is a decision not taken lightly. However it is a decision that will ultimately benefit the human race; the world would be a different place if the pioneers of flight had cancelled the development of the aeroplane because they saw it as a form of transport that was too risky. Persevering with the development of projects like Virgin Galactic brings humanity ever closer to the prospect of exploration of the stars and other worlds – a pertinent journey for the future generations of our plane.