A week ago, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson briefly rocketed to the border of space in his company’s winged space plane, the VSS Unity.
On Tuesday, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos will be among a small crew scheduled to launch from west Texas in Bezos’ Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket. Three minutes into flight, the crew capsule is expected to split from the rocket and a minute later reach apogee, the flight path point furthest from Earth.
Back on Earth, Utahn Patrick Wiggins, a longtime astronomy educator retired from Hansen Planetarium in Salt Lake City, is closely watching these developments. People worldwide are talking about the billionaires’ space race, which is good, Wiggins said.
“The fact that they’re going to open it up to more people is good. The fact that they’re trying to bring the cost down, that’s definitely good. I hope I live long enough to get on a Blue Origin rocket. I’ve emailed them and I’ve got a savings account,” Wiggins said.
At age 72, Wiggins said he’s even contemplated selling his house to fund a space flight.
“I so badly want to go,” he said.
It will be a while before the flights are accessible to most people. A yet-to-be-named passenger bid $28 million for a ticket on Blue Origin, although Friday it was announced the ticket will go to an 18-year-old physics student.
Billionaire inventor/entrepreneur Elon Musk, who is also pursuing space tourism, has reportedly purchased a $250,000 ticket for a future 90-minute ride on Virgin Galactic. Musk is founder, CEO, and chief engineer at SpaceX.
But Utahns say the day will come, eventually, when space travel is more accessible to people other than the uber-wealthy.
“I think what it does is, it opens up that frontier to a lot of people who could really never have hoped to get into space at all before,” said Duke Johnson, Clark Planetarium’s associate director of education and exhibits.
“It’s a neat thing if you’ve got the funds to expend on something that’s unique and fun that you can talk about with your friends. I think it’ll be a cool thing for some of the more wealthy folks to do. For the average American, I think it’s still going to be a while before something like that becomes both accessible in terms of price and meaningful in terms of experience,” he said, noting the current trips to the edge of space are very short.
Both Wiggins and Johnson say that day of better access will come, but it’s unclear how soon.
It wasn’t that long ago that commercial air travel was out of reach for most mainstream Americans and it is now widely accessible and an $800 billion industry per year, according to some estimates.
Like space travel, government led out on air travel to deliver the mail, Wiggins said, and also for defense purposes. With time, private commercial carriers expanded air travel.
“It’s not like you fly on a U.S. or German or Australian airliner now. You fly on Lufthansa or Delta or Qantas. More and more, we’re going to see commercial space. There will still be room for government, especially for the very expensive things that are going way out into the solar system and beyond,” he said.
“But for stuff like going up and maybe a couple of times around the Earth and back down again, that’s in my humble opinion, is going to be commonplace and it’s going to be the SpaceXes and the Blue Origins and maybe Virgin Galactic,” said Wiggins, who is a NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory solar system ambassador to Utah, but speaks as a private individual.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origins offer different travel experiences, which somewhat differentiates the marketplace.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard is a capsule on a rocket that will travel past the Kármán line, a 62-mile-high boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, which is further than Virgin Galactic.
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceplane launched from the air after it was carried to a high altitude by the VMS Eve aircraft. The spaceplane flew to the edge of space, 53.5 miles above the Earth’s surface. The U.S. military and NASA award astronaut wings to those flying above 50 miles.
Wiggins said he hopes that in the future, Virgin Galactic will shoot for the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale standard, which is 62 miles above mean sea level.
“It was so close to it but as I like to say in American football, you don’t score a touchdown on the 1-yard line. You have to go the rest of the way before it’s a touchdown. I’m glad they did it. I just wish they would go a little higher to get international recognition,” Wiggins said.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in theory, once the 62-mile line is crossed, the atmosphere becomes too thin to provide enough lift for conventional aircraft to maintain flight. At this altitude, a conventional plane would need to reach orbital velocity or risk falling back to Earth.