Gad­get of the month

Nay-say­ers keep knock­ing the Vir­gin Galac­tic CEO but Sci­ence Un­cov­ered’s edi­tor says it’s time we cut him some slack – he wants to take us to space!

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Nutribul­let, the blen­der that fires five-a-day

When I was nine, I had a dream that has stuck in my mind ever since. I was float­ing in a space­craft look­ing through a win­dow back at planet Earth. No launch and no re-en­try. It was just me. Float­ing. In si­lence. Star­ing at our planet.

Many other kids prob­a­bly had the same dream. Thank heav­ens bi­og­ra­pher and jour­nal­ist Tom Bower wasn’t around to cri­tique our fan­tasies at the time. He prob­a­bly would have said, “You id­iot! You’ve only got a card­board box to ‘fly’ in, and you aren’t even old enough to drive! How are you ever go­ing to get into or­bit? Pa­thetic!”

That, pretty much, is what Bower’s said about Sir Richard Bran­son’s at­tempts to get Vir­gin Galac­tic lit­er­ally off the ground in his new book on the space­bound en­tre­pre­neur. Bower reck­ons his craft won’t be lift­ing pay­ing pun­ters into or­bit any­time soon be­cause its en­gine just isn’t pow­er­ful enough.

Now, it’s fair to say it’s cer­tainly not been plain sail­ing for Vir­gin Galac­tic. When it “launched” as a com­pany back in 2004, its tar­get for commercial space­flights was 2007. You may have no­ticed that it’s now Space Year 2014. To date its craft, SpaceShipTwo, hasn’t even been tested in space yet.

On the other hand, Vir­gin Galac­tic is bullishly adamant its hy­brid rocket, which in­ter­est­ingly burns a mix of laugh­ing gas and rub­ber, is up to the job. Af­ter its third su­per­sonic test flight ear­lier this year, it con­firmed it was still on track to start commercial flights in space later in 2014.

Now, in these strait­ened times, I know it’s not fash­ion­able to de­fend bil­lion­aire en­tre­pre­neur types, but we re­ally need to cut Bran­son some slack here. Af­ter all, it’s not an easy thing that he’s try­ing to do.

As I said, I’ve long wanted to visit space. Not even for a long spell, ei­ther; just enough to see whether weight­less­ness matches up to the sen­sa­tion in my dream. But in the five decades since Yuri Ga­garin first or­bited Earth, be­fore plum­met­ing to the ground, land­ing in a field and be­ing of­fered tea by a farmer, barely more than 500 other people have made it up there.

That is shock­ing. This is 2014! The date it­self sounds like it’s in “the fu­ture”. Aren’t we sup­posed to be tak­ing our hol­i­days in ho­tels on the Moon by now? Yet so far space has been the pre­serve of mil­i­tary pi­lots and those with a spare few mil­lion bucks for a seat on a Soyuz.

A few stats show the scale of the chal­lenge. NASA puts the cost to launch each Shut­tle at $495 mil­lion. Fol­low­ing the Shut­tle’s demise, the space agency has been pay­ing Rus­sia to

In the 53 years since man reached space , just over 500 of us have been up there

fly its as­tro­nauts to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion and back aboard a Soyuz, and even that costs $69 mil­lion per space­man.

But SpaceShipTwo will not be fly­ing as far as ei­ther, tak­ing pas­sen­gers just over the boundary of space, 100km up, rather than hurl­ing them into or­bit, and will do so for US$250,000 a ticket. Ad­mit­tedly, Bran­son isn’t quite of­fer­ing us a five-day stay in a ho­tel on the Moon (yet), but he is promis­ing to make trips into space avail­able to reg­u­lar folk. Well, reg­u­lar folk with a quar­ter of a mil­lion to spare.

But if Bran­son’s right this time, reg­u­lar commercial pas­sen­ger flights into space will be here soon – pos­si­bly even by the end of the year. For many, even the lower cost he’s ask­ing will still be way out of reach, but the same was true of early flights on a reg­u­lar plane. We have to start some­where. Bran­son’s pi­o­neer­ing spirit de­serves our ad­mi­ra­tion even if not yet for most of us, our money.

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