Commercial space flight: Opening the door to the final frontier?

Eight years before the lunar landing the first manned spacecraft left Earth’s atmosphere making history and Yuri Gagarin famous (a crater on the moon is named after him). His flight lasted just under two hours – enough time to orbit the Earth once. Nearly a decade and 33 manned missions (varying from suborbital flights to trips around the moon) later Apollo 11 set down on the moon’s surface and Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on an extra-orbital body.  In 1972, Apollo 17 was the fourth and last mission to the surface of the moon and more than 30 years later we have yet to accomplish another extra-planetary landing, but that might soon change.

Virgin Galactic is opening the first commercial spaceport (I have found conflicting reports on the opening date, one says it opened last month another says it will open in four months).  Space tourism has been on the radar for 40 years. Pan Am was actually taking bookings for commercial flights to the moon following Apollo 11’s succesful landing. Although there have been a few private citizens who have embarked on tourist missions to space, this will mark the beginning of regular and “affordable” ($200,000 is affordable compared to $20 million) tourist flights.  What it also means is advancement.

Unlike a government-controlled agency, private business has a greater incentive to improve and become more cost-effective. One tourist operator will lead to a variety of tourist operators and to succeed they will need to offer the best experience at the best price. Ten-day orbital tours will evolve into trips around the moon, spacewalks and eventually lunar landings. From there, well, the sky is no longer the limit. To achieve this with untrained private citizens the technology will have to be nearly fool-proof, but, most of all, it will have to push the envelope. Those developing the space-tourism industry will be locked in a battle of progression and hopefully that will mean rapid progression in spacecraft design and propulsion systems.

Although $200,000 is a bit out of my price range, as competition increases and technology improves the cost will come down. When that happens new experiences will have to be marketed and the real advancements will emerge. When orbital and lunar tours have become yesterday’s unique pleasure trips then companies will have to go bigger and farther. I can’t wait to book my spa get away at the Ritz Mars.

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