Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX
Blue Origins and Virgin Galactic are set to begin the first ever commercial flights for private space travelers in 2018, with SpaceX not far behind.
Against the backdrop of the April 2017 Space Symposium in Colorado in the United States, Jeff Bezos presented a life-size model of the New Shepard capsule, which will transport the first private space travelers. The New Shepard has yet to fly, but it shows that Blue Origin is committed to offering commercial space flights in 2018. The plan is that two travelers will get to space and enjoy the experience for 11 minutes before starting the return trip. Currently, the project has an estimated total cost of US$2.5 billion.
For his part, Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, has also set 2018 as the start of his space operations. His space plane prototype, the VSS Unity, has already performed successful tests. Branson’s plan consists of launching the powerful craft and six passengers to an altitude of 50,000 feet (15 km). The VSS Unity will accelerate to three times the speed of sound, taking passengers into space and allowing them to experience the delights of weightlessness for six minutes. At the moment, the wait list includes famous figures such as Stephen Hawking, Leonardo DiCaprio, Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, among others who will pay up to US$250,000 for their seat in space.
The third private competitor is Elon Musk and SpaceX, which plans to put loads of up to 64 tons in spatial orbit with his prototype Falcon Heavy. Musk’s project eschews the suborbital market in order to penetrate deep space. Among his objectives is to become the private cargo and passenger transporter to the Moon, Mars and Pluto.
The wait list includes famous figures such as Stephen Hawking, Leonardo DiCaprio, Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, among others who will pay up to US$250,000 for their seat in space.
Since 1970, China has launched more than 100 Earth-monitoring, communications, navigation and space exploration satellites. It has put in orbit manned spacecraft, has built a space station and, in December of 2013, it landed the small craft Yutu (“Jade Rabbit”) on the lunar surface. It plans lunar missions for late 2017–2018, and, in 2020, it will attempt to land a craft on the surface of Mars.
The European Space Agency (ESA), which suffered the loss of its Schiaparelli explorer on Mars, continues with its plan for scientific satellites, including a new attempt to reach Mars. For its part, NASA is planning a manned Moon mission for 2020, to take place at the same time as its manned Mars mission.
Meanwhile, Russia has joined forces with China in space exploration. Both countries are studying the possibility of developing a joint base on the Moon and sending a manned mission there in 2029, carrying out joint explorations of Mars.
In The Space Report 2017: The Authoritative Guide to Global Space Activity, the Space Foundation offered a clue about the motives for this surprising race between government and private sectors for the conquest of space. The report pointed out that in 2016, the global space economy reached a total of US$329 billion worldwide. An astronomical number, of which US$323 billion represents the growth of commercial or private space activity. In sum, commercial space activity represented 76 percent of the worldwide space economy.
Obtaining new sources of energy could be what’s behind this level of investment and competition. Moon exploration, with the extraction of a rare helium isotope (helium-3), which does not reach the planet, could “solve the demand for energy for 10,000 years,” scientist Ouyang Ziyuan from China’s Lunar Exploration Program told The International Business Times. It’s worthwhile to note that the ship Nostromo, from the movie Alien, was a space cargo vessel that transported minerals to Earth from distant planets. Memories from the future, perhaps.
Thus, the urgent development of space bases and stations, large-capacity “cargo ships,” and the sudden new interest in Earth’s satellite begin to make sense. As reported by the South China Morning Post, United States anti-espionage laws require Virgin Galactic to prohibit Chinese citizens from taking part or even traveling on its ships, since Virgin Galactic’s engines are considered military-grade technology. ■
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