Virgin Galactic: Space For Everyone?

Richard Branson’s space tourism for the privileged few could be an important stepping stone to interstellar travel for all mankind, opines our editor-in-chief.

In the wake of last Friday’s crash of Virgin Galactic’s test spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, doubt has been cast on the future of Richard Branson’s space tourism and exploration initiative. “We are not going to push on blindly,” said Branson, speaking to journalists at the Mojave Desert scene of the accident, in which one crew member was tragically killed. The billionaire Virgin boss added: “Once we find out what went wrong, if we can overcome it, we will make absolutely certain that the dream lives on.” Obviously, Branson’s concern for the wellbeing of his pilots and passengers takes precedence over any aspirations to pioneer a new form of travel. Rightly so.

An opinion piece by Zoe Williams in The Guardian, however, took issue with Virgin Galactic’s plans for reasons entirely other than safety. “Richard Branson’s space tourism shows what today’s obscene inequality looks like,” the hand-wringing headline screamed. “When rich people burn huge sums of money on fun, it wakes us up to the excesses of the free market,” the standfirst elaborated. Williams’ screed then poured scorn on Branson’s statement that “millions of people would one day love the chance to go to space. Argued the writer: “whatever they would or would not love, millions of people will never be able to access this chance, to borrow the language of infinite opportunity. Millions of people will never have £150,000 [the approximate price of a ticket on Virgin Galactic] in disposable income.”

True that may be. But Williams chooses to disregard the pivotal words contained in Branson’s remark — “one day”. Yes, in the short term, space travel will remain the province of those with much higher than average discretionary spending levels. But as the free market Williams so decries dictates, it is only with the investment of these trailblazers that funds will be allocated to research and development that will allow space travel to become more affordable, and “one day”, available to the masses. (This certainly seems to be Virgin Galactic’s ultimate goal. In a statement posted to its website on 2 November, the company said: “Everything we do is to pursue the vision of accessible and democratised space — and to do it safely. Just like early air or sea travel, it is hard and complicated, but we believe that a thriving commercial space industry will have far reaching benefits for humanity, technology and research for generations to come.”)

It is all too easy to forget that jet air travel was, only 50 years ago, accessible purely to a wealthy elite. It gradually became democratised to the point where now, a seat aboard a budget carrier can be had for just a few dollars. It is far from inconceivable to imagine the evolution of space travel following a similar trajectory.

This brings to mind sentiments expressed in a recent article by Josh Sims on the impending resurgence of supersonic flight. As Sims’ story noted, at the advent of a new generation of supersonic aircraft, “uptake would undoubtedly initially be the preserve of ultra-high-net-worth individuals. Yet [these aircraft] would, as Robbie Cowart, director of Gulfstream Aerospace’s Supersonic Research Programme, says, nevertheless be an important stepping stone on the road to [supersonic] becoming commonplace in commercial flight: ‘Mobile phones started as an expensive item for the minority and similarly it took a few people who could see its value early on and who could afford to make it feasible for everyone else.’”

Automobiles, televisions, computers, mobile telephones, high-speed air travel — even indoor plumbing, if we’re to look a bit further back: all these innovations we now take for granted were once available only to those with the wherewithal to pay the hefty price tags they carried during their incipient days as newfangled mod-cons. Profits from high-cost early iterations were poured back into product development and the creation of better, more accessibly priced versions, which soon reached the mass market.

Space travel will very likely experience a similar progression. Far from being, as Williams’ opinion piece would have it, merely “rich people burning huge sums of money on fun”, Branson and the early adopters in the enviable position to pay for seats aboard Virgin Galactic’s first forays into space are providing the inspiration, innovation and, vitally, the resources required to ensure that “one day” space travel will be accessible to millions, as opposed to solely those with millions.

For more on the Virgin Galactic spacecraft crash, click here.

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