To not-so-cheaply go where no journalist has gone before: Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo over the Mojave Desert in April, the first time its rocket motor was fired in flight, taking the craft supersonic. Photographer: Mars Scientific.com/Clay Center Observatory via Bloomberg
How to Get to Space on a Budget
My father bought me my first science-fiction novel for my eighth birthday. By the time I was 11, I fully expected to become a space colonist. Some might argue that I did, in fact, become a space cadet, but from a strictly factual standpoint, it’s fair to say that my dreams were crushed. And given that I’m a journalist married to another journalist, I’m unlikely ever to be able to take a ride on Virgin Galactic’s space coaster at $250,000 a pop.
But as with so many luxury items, it looks as if the market is innovating a cheaper version:
A new space tourism company named World View unveiled its plans on Tuesday to loft passengers to the stratosphere as early as 2015, not by rocket but by giant balloon. Price: $75,000. (Drinks included.)
World View is led by the same people involved in Inspiration Mars, a private endeavor to launch two people in 2018 to a flyby of the red planet.
“This is a very gentle flight that will last for hours aloft,” said Jane Poynter, World View’s chief executive. She said the cabin would be about the size of that of a private jet, and would have a " superbly comfortable, luxurious interior where you can get up and stand upright and move around and go back to the bar and get a drink.”
Over the past few years, space tourism companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace have sold hundreds of tickets for suborbital rocket trips, with the first paying passengers scheduled to get their rides as early as next year. But the rockets are essentially big roller-coaster rides, with the exciting portion at the top of the arc lasting just a few minutes.
By contrast, World View’s balloon and capsule, with six passengers and two crew members, would take about an hour and a half to reach altitude and then drift for a couple of hours before the balloon was jettisoned and the capsule would glide back to Earth beneath an inflated parasail.
You don’t actually get to outer space; the ride only takes you a little more than 18 miles up. But it will feel spacelike: no blue sky, and you can see the curvature of the Earth.
Again, given that I am a journalist married to another journalist, I’m unlikely to be able to afford a $75,000 ride, either. But who says innovation has to stop here?
One reason I’m glad to hear this news is that the early government-led push into space seems to have stalled out. Unmanned missions continue, but we in the U.S. seem to have lost most of our interest in sending humans outward to reach for the stars. Or, at least, our government has. If these services prove successful, they’ll demonstrate that many, many humans are still interested. And that demand will hopefully provide a robust foundation for markets to innovate where governments have stopped. It does seem a bit strange to think that tourism, of all things, would help push humans into space. But who’s to say that the first humans left Africa because the tribal leaders wanted it? Maybe intrepid individuals just wanted to see for themselves what lay beyond the edges of their world.