The Race For A Space Base

SLIDESHOW: The science-fiction prophecies of commercialised space travel took a further 30 years to come into fruition when US businessman Dennis Tito became the world’s first space vacationist in 2001.

Prof. Stephen Hawking warned we have 100 years to colonise another planet for the human race to survive. A handful of billionaires are gearing up for the Space Race of the century, with space travel being the first step.

It sounds like the plot to a Marvel superhero film. Five tech billionaires — three Americans, one Brit and a Russian — vying to be the first true galactic entrepreneur. Tesla’s Elon Musk, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Virgin’s Richard Branson and Yuri Milner of Digital Sky Technologies are going head to head in a resurgence of the Space Race.

The Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s between the US and the Soviet Union defined the Cold War. While time has mellowed the moon landings as a pioneering act of human endeavour, the primary motivation of space travel was to flaunt war technology to adversaries and demonstrate the superiority of particular social systems. The Soviet Union beat the US to the first two milestones: Sputnik 1 was the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth and Yuri Gagarin the first human in space. The US put a man on the Moon on 20 July 1969. The Moon landings defined the beginning of the end of the space race. The last manned mission to the Moon was in December 1972.

Space travel has since been limited to the installation and repair of satellites and space stations. The science-fiction prophecies of commercialised space travel took a further 30 years to come into fruition when US businessman Dennis Tito became the world’s first space vacationist in 2001 on board a Russian Soyuz spacecraft — a US$20 million round-trip ticket.

Space exploration remained the domain of governments until big business saw an opportunity to improve on cumbersome and beleaguered federal agencies such as NASA and Roscosmos. Elon Musk created Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX, with a mission of reducing space transportation costs by increasing reusable components in space rockets. In March this year SpaceX became the first to relaunch and land a commercial payload rocket.

Musk announced in February that SpaceX will be ready to take paying customers into space by the end of next year and it has already received ‘significant’ deposits from two private citizens. The trip will orbit the Moon and stretch the record for longest distance travelled in space from Apollo 13’s 249,000-mile mission in 1970 to in excess of 300,000 miles.

Fellow US tech-engineer Jeff Bezos founded Amazon 23 years ago. He set up spaceflight company Blue Origin in 2000, like Musk, to reduce the cost and increase usability in space travel. Initially, sub-orbital flight (breaking out of Earth’s atmosphere and then returning to land) technology is being developed into full orbital flight (remaining in Earth’s orbit for at least a full rotation). The Blue Origin spacecraft New Shepard has had six successful unmanned launches. Manned test flights are planned to commence early next year, with commercial flights following shortly after.

Although not exactly the battleground you would expect given the blockbuster plot, Bezos and Musk have been slugging it out on Twitter. The battle will be only be won when a paying customer safely returns from a trip into outer space.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic had aimed to provide spaceflights to paying passengers by 2010 but has been beset by delays and technical issues. In 2014, a test-flight explosion killed a co-pilot and seriously injured a pilot. Despite this setback and a following two-year hiatus in test-flights, Virgin Galactic will likely be the first to give paying customers a taste of space travel.

Virgin Galactic‘s spaceship is made of two components: a mothership WhiteKnightTwo will carry space rocket SpaceShipTwo between her twin fuselages to an altitude of 14km above sea level at a speed approaching the sound barrier. Once released, the private-jet-sized rocket carrying six passengers will accelerate vertically to Mach 3.5 in around a minute punching through the Karman Line (100km above sea level) and beyond Earth’s atmosphere before returning back. Despite the US$250,000 price for a little under two hours of flying time, more than 700 people have already paid.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has vested interests in aerospace technology company Vulcan. In 2004 Allen provided investment behind a project to put a civilian into suborbital space and in 2011 announced the Stratolaunch system, which uses a similar air launch design to Virgin Galactic rather than the vertical take-off of SpaceX and Blue Origin. The Vulcan Stratolaunch mothership is currently in build and will have six engines and a wingspan of 117m. She will carry a 250-tonne rocket up to 10,000m before launching it into space. Allen’s motivation for accessing low-Earth orbit is perhaps more philanthropic than his sparring partners, citing “the potential to redefine our lives by creating more opportunities for commercial, philanthropic and governmental organisations to collect rich and actionable data, and drive advancements in science, research, and technology from space”.

Physicist and venture capitalist Yuri Milner is investing in travel far beyond our own solar system. Milner was an early adopter of computer and internet technology in Russia and made his billions with the internet firm Mail.ru. In 2012 Milner and his wife established the Breakthrough Prize awarding endeavours in the fields of science and mathematics. The Breakthrough Starshot initiative, endorsed by Stephen Hawking, was announced last year with a US$100 million kick-start to promote research into sending unmanned probes to our neighbouring star systems. To put this into context, the Karman Line, which defines the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, is 100km above sea level, whereas Alpha Centuri is over 40 trillion kilometres away, or 4.37 light years.

The initiative is funding public domain research of a miniscule nano-probe to travel at one-fifth the speed of light on a 20-year mission. The craft will be equipped with laser-propelled light sails and launched in space by the thousand. Technology is not yet advanced enough to make the robots small or light enough but both Milner and Hawking are confident that it is within reach and they expect to see results within a working lifetime.

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SLIDESHOW: The science-fiction prophecies of commercialised space travel took a further 30 years to come into fruition when US businessman Dennis Tito became the world’s first space vacationist in 2001.

Space Race

Blue Origin’s New Shepard space vehicle successfully flew to space before executing a historic landing back at the launch site in West Texas.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard space vehicle successfully flew to space before executing a historic landing back at the launch site in West Texas.

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