The Next Chapter: Space Travel

Every auto manufacturer is researching into the future of transportation, hoping to beat their competitors to emerge the leader of...

Every auto manufacturer is researching into the future of transportation, hoping to beat their competitors to emerge the leader of these exciting new technologies, be it connectivity in the car, alternative powered vehicles like hybrids and electric cars, and self-driving vehicles. Meanwhile, most of us have forgotten that there still are unexplored realms that require quite different modes of transportation altogether. In our reality, there is the sea; why no one has built an underwater resort, with submarine tours to visit the beauty that lies within the depths of the ocean, is a pity. And then there is…space.

It seems like we are closer to realising Star Trek than 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. When Virgin Galactic was founded in 2004, with the objective of providing space travel as matter-a-factly as any other tour package, it felt like a joke. One almost expected Richard Branson, the billionaire founder, to jump out and shout, “Gotcha!” But Branson is not a ridiculously rich man chasing a foolhardy dream (he is simply ridiculously rich). On 5 September 2013, the second test flight was conducted successfully, reaching an altitude of 69,000 feet. The actual goal, though, is the Karman line, the boundary that marks the beginning of space, so that passengers can qualify as ‘astronauts’. And that is at 360,000 feet.

Still, the folks at Virgin Galactic is confident that by next year, only 10 years after the company was founded, they will be able to send paying tourists to space. The first passengers will be Branson and his daughters; what better way to show your confidence towards your products, especially when it comes to safety, than to get your own family to use it?

The technology behind it is awe inspiring. The flight requires not 1, but 2 spacecrafts. Both crafts are made from carbon composite, which is extremely strong yet surprisingly light – 4 times the strength of steel and only a quarter of its weight. The first, referred to as the Mothership or White Knight, functions as a launch platform for SpaceShip Two (SS2) that carries the 6 passengers and 2 pilots further into sub orbit. An air launch is much safer than a ground launch, as the atmosphere is thinner, hence, requiring less fuel and shorter usage of the rocket motor for the boost to space.

Once SS2 passes the Karman line, passengers can unbuckle themselves and float freely, weightless, around the 60 feet long, 90 inch diameter cabin, or remain seated and enjoy the view through the windows above and beside them.

The SS2 also uses a hybrid rocket motor, which Virgin Galactic claims to be much safer as it uses fuel in a solid form and has a valve control that allows the pilot to shut down the motor if required. So far, it has proven worthy of the job in the 2 test flights. However, during one of the early lab tests, an explosion occurred that resulted in 3 fatalities.
Despite misgivings about safety, about 640 tickets have been sold for USD250,000 a seat. Considering that so far only 536 people have been to space, the growth in space travel is about to get exponential. Astronaut wannabes who already have their tickets include Stephen Hawking (naturally, and with compliments) and celebrities like Leonardo Dicaprio, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga.

Virgin Galactic is not the only company who wants to revolutionise the space travel industry, but they are the closest to achieving the dream of sending ordinary citizens to space. If space travel becomes a weekend jaunt, we can expect a slew of new micro industries and products springing up as a result - imagine space suits walking down the runway of Paris Fashion Show or over-the-counter ‘spacescreen’ creams for protection from the radiation in space.

Further into the future, perhaps individualised spacecrafts will become a reality (like the Jetsons!). Imagine flying a spacecraft to the moon or Mars like you would drive a car to work. Imagine there are space buses for mass transportation of people between planets. Would there be fuel stations floating around to refuel your tanks (we wonder how much a full tank would cost)? Space would be an awful place to run out of gas, as your spacecraft would continue propelling forward without maneuvering or decelerating abilities.

Meanwhile, since most of us cannot afford the quarter of a million dollars, here's the next best thing - videos from the test flights:




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