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!
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.