“…it seems to me that the list of exciting things to do here on earth has diminished greatly in the wake of the lunar landings. I just can’t get excited about things I way I could before Apollo 11.” – Michael Collins, Apollo 11 Astronaut
I just can’t get excited about Virgin Galactic.
I feel a little unkind saying that, as its spacecraft combine several elegant and innovative technologies and last month’s successful rocket test certainly looked impressive.
But while companies like Space X are hauling cargo to the International Space Station and Planetary Resources are prepping mining missions to nearby asteroids, Richard Branson’s stake in the private space race has less lofty ambitions.
If you have about two hours and $200,000 to spare, you can blast to the edge of space and enjoy ten minutes of weightlessness before gliding safely back to your point of departure for celebratory drinks.
All very glamorous, but I can’t help feeling it’s a sub-orbital flight to nowhere – a miniature pleasure cruise for the super rich, taking them just high enough to earn bragging rights. (Beyond an altitute of 80km, the US government officially awards you astronaut status).
I could see the point of an intercontinental spaceliner – imagine New York to London in less than two hours – but this is a bit like taking off from Stanstead airport, circling over Calais a few times, then heading home and telling everyone you’ve been awarded French citizenship.
All this just a week after Chris Hadfield – International Space Station Commander and newfound star of the social media sphere – returned to Earth amidst renewed questions about the station’s relevance. He refuted some of these while still in orbit, dismissing calls for more rapid breakthroughs as a quest for ‘titillation’.
He makes a fair point and I suppose it’s inevitable that, as space travel becomes more commonplace, it will automatically lose some of its power to thrill. But instead of waiting for someone to pass the next milestone, perhaps we just need to look deeper.
I caught the space bug after a family visit to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in 2010, where we attended an ‘Astronaut Encounter’ event – a sort of informal lecture followed by a Q&A session. I was expecting them to wheel out some obscure, low ranking scientist – the sort of person who spends the whole mission studying fungus samples in the cargo bay – so imagine how chuffed I was at meeting Fred Gregory, three time space shuttle Commander and former Acting Head of NASA. This guy was the real deal.
And he was brilliant. He told us about falling asleep in the cockpit waiting for liftoff, he taught us how to move about in zero gravity without flailing around like a fish on a hook (you just direct yourself by blowing gently) and how each crew he had flown with divided into those who stared down at the Earth and those who stared out into space.
He was also openly critical of NASA’s decision to retire the shuttle fleet, blaming it in part on the agency’s inability to make its own work sound both relevant and sexy.
Private industry has always had a knack for self-promotion, so perhaps the new spacefaring companies can succeed where NASA has been failing. We certainly seem to be on the cusp of an exciting new era.
So perhaps I’m being unduly harsh on Virgin Galactic; it’s just a first step after all, and greater things could follow. But when even Ashton Kutcher has beaten you to the final frontier, you know the romance is dead.