Soaring above 50 miles high in a beauty of a vessel, the age of space tourism began. The Unity-22 flight by Virgin Galactic, with a British pilot and British passengers, opens a new era, not just for multi-millionaires who can afford the experience, but for options for spaceflight in general.
Yes, Blue Origin will be coming along later, and their New Shepard is a most brilliant machine, but it does not swoop out across the sky and glide home with the elegance of a swallow, as Branson’s did. Virgin Galactic has built an aeroplane to space.
It was a very Branson occasion. The flight was short, the presentation glitzy, with a rock band plying for the crowds, whoops and cheers, and a presentation reminding us of all the other Virgin-branded endeavours Richard Branson is leading – including his investment in Elon Musk’s hyperloop.
For those who have followed the career of Burt Rutan, Spaceship Two, of which Unity is the one flying example at them moment, is unmistakably his: it has his familiar curves all over it and crowns a most remarkable life of aircraft design. (That said, he has not stopped, even in retirement.)
It shows us how things have changed. This is not the X-15 rocket-plane, with a pilot cramped inside a cabin barely big enough to move his arms, fighting to keep control of a wayward machine – Unity has a passenger cabin with comfy seats, lounge room, yet it flies as high and as fast as the X-15.
Up until now, we have always had astronauts who were carefully chosen men, the best pilots entrusted with the fasted aircraft, young and trained to the peak of fitness, as they had to be so as endure being confined in a narrow box, to endure the crushing forces of blast-off on a converted ICBM, and to keep exact control of a tumbling capsule. Now we have Richard Branson, fit perhaps but 70 years old, stepping from the spacecraft at the end without showing any discomfort. That is a great achievement.
Jeff Bezos will be taking an eighty year-old lady, a veteran pilot: that too shows how far rocketry has come.
The key element of both Spaceship Two and New Shepard is 100% reusability. Spaceship Two is a spaceplane and New Shepard a vertical rocket, two very different concepts. There is room for each, and for SpaceX, which will take passengers even into orbit. The idea of a spaceplane is to use up the fuel in the ascent, and then glide back to Earth empty, while for a reusable rocket there are no wings, which reduces friction but requires the vessel to keep much of the propellant ready to relight the engines for a controlled descent.
Space for everyone is in reach. There has been talk of taking Tom Cruise to the International Space Station just to film a scene for a Mission Impossible film: that would have been inconceivable before Elon Musk made it a reality.
Will Virgin Galactic put paying passengers into orbit? They have put satellites into orbit. After yesterday, it is only a matter of time before customers are taken on orbital flights, and whether they will beat Blue Origin I do not know.
The years ahead of us will be exciting.
- Fifty years on, and the frontier is open
- The Way to the Stars
- Revealed: why Britain did not reach the Moon first
- Chasing the Moon: The Story of the Space Race – from Arthur C. Clarke to the Apollo Landings by Robert Stone
- A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin
- First on the Moon: The Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Experience by Rod Pyle
- The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions by Robert Rankin
- A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C Clarke