You could soon be taking holidays in space

Zoom: This Virgin Galactic spacecraft can fly at over two times the speed of sound.

Would you be a space tourist? Virgin Galactic has launched a revolutionary new aircraft to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere — it could take tourists into space as early as next year.

Eighty kilometres up. That is the altitude that space officially begins. And in a major breakthrough, it is the height that a Virgin Galactic spacecraft reached in a landmark test yesterday.

“It’s a day that we’ve been waiting for for a long time,” said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. “We’ve had our challenges […] but to get to the point where we are at least in range of space flight is a big deal.”

It has been a rocky road for the company. Yesterday’s flight in southern California was the fourth test since co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed in an accident in 2014.

Sir Richard Branson, who set up the company, has since emphasised that “safety’s all that matters if you’re putting people into space.”

In the end, Thursday’s operation was a success, with complex manoeuvres executed smoothly. A specially designed plane climbed to around 43,000 feet with a separate spacecraft attached. When the moment was right, pilots detached the craft from the plane, tipped the nose up vertically, and blasted towards space.

At the flight’s highest point, the pilots experienced several minutes of weightlessness and enjoyed views of Earth below stretching 500 miles in every direction.

Soon, this experience could be available to the general public. Branson’s ultimate ambition is to turn Virgin Galactic into the first space tourism company.

While a specific date has not been set for its first commercial flight, around 700 people have already signed up — each paying $250,000. Branson says he will be on the first trip, with celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks in line to follow.

But in this new commercial space race, there is intense competition.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and the richest man in the world, is the brains behind space company Blue Origin. He hopes to take tourists into space as early as next year.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s SpaceX celebrated major breakthroughs this year too — successfully testing reusable rockets which could make space tourism much cheaper. It hopes to fly humans around the moon by 2023.

Would you be a space tourist?

To infinity

Not for me, some argue. For one thing, space travel can never be totally safe. Furthermore, this new “space race” is just a flashy sideshow for the ultra-rich. Companies should put time and money into the problems here on Earth. Space tourism is pointless and indulgent — it would be wrong to support it.

Absolutely, others respond. Space travel has been a pipe dream for many people, but only a tiny minority could actually do it. With these amazing breakthroughs, that is all about to change. We should celebrate this success, and encourage entrepreneurs to make it as accessible as possible. Sign me up!

You Decide

  1. Is space tourism a pointless luxury?
  2. Is being an astronaut a realistic ambition?

Activities

  1. Imagine you were a passenger on the Virgin Galactic space flight. Write a paragraph detailing your experience: how did it feel when the plane took off? What was weightlessness like? How did Earth look from 80 kilometres above? Include as much descriptive language as possible.
  2. There are three major companies competing to dominate space tourism: Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. Do some research into each. How do their spacecrafts differ? What aims and objectives do they have? Which company do you think will be the most successful?

Some People Say...

“We should’ve never left the Moon.”

Ray Bradbury

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In breaching the 80 kilometre barrier, the Virgin Galactic pilots technically became the first people to launch to “space” from American soil since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. They are also the first to do so with a commercial company.
What do we not know?
We do not know when the first tourists will be sent into space. Virgin Galactic wants to do so next year, however, serious delays have hampered plans before. Elon Musk’s plans to take tourists to the moon may also prove an ambition too far — the entrepreneur is currently hampered by legal troubles.

Word Watch

Officially
This is the altitude at which the US government awards astronaut wings.
Southern California
The launch location is in the Mojave Desert, 100 miles north of Los Angeles.
Sir Richard Branson
English entrepreneur and billionaire. He founded the Virgin Group, which now controls over 400 separate companies. His early success largely came from a chain of record stores.
Plane
Called the VMS Eve — named after Sir Richard Branson’s mother.
Spacecraft
Called the VMS Unity. It is designed to carry six passengers into space.
Richest
He has a fortune of over $150 billion. This is $55 billion more than Bill Gates, the second richest man.
Reusable rockets
Once the boosters have been used, they descend to Earth in a controlled flight, landing vertically on land or sea. They can then be refuelled and sent on another mission.

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