The first billionaire in space has excited many others, who think that one day they too will be able to see the Earth from a height of 85 km.
Virgin Galactic launches spacecraft (Photo Credits: Virgin Galactic)
Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson and his team successfully flew to the ‘end of space’ on a Virgin Galactic plane on July 12 as part of the Unity 22 mission. This was seen and praised as the beginning of space tourism, and it happened just days before the proposed July 20 flight of another billionaire businessman Jeff Bezos and his company Blue Origin.
The question is, can the Virgin Galactic flight to an altitude of 85 km really be considered space? And what do these companies want to achieve going forward? The definition of where space begins is very subjective. The Carman line, located at an altitude of 100 km from the Earth, was determined in 1957 as the beginning of space. The Swiss Air Sports Federation adopted this line as the standard for acknowledging whether an activity is aeronautical or space-related.
Space doesn’t mean weightlessness at all
In contrast, the US Air Force and NASA have set their limits at an altitude of 80 km, where military personnel get ‘astronaut wings’. Several specialist aircraft have reached this height, including the X-15 and the private sector-funded ‘SpaceShipOne’, which reached an altitude of 112 km, which is far above the current achievement of VSS’s Unity. Blue Origin aims to reach an altitude of 106 km.
From this height you get to see spectacular views of the earth but it is not an ‘orbit’. To get into orbit at this altitude, you must travel in a horizontal direction at a speed of at least 7.85 km/s (17500 mph). Unity just went up to a straight height and then landed back in a controlled manner. It is relatively easy, but putting it into orbit is more difficult, both in terms of energy and engineering.
The definition of the ends of space is not trivial. Space is not the place where you feel weightlessness as for some time you can achieve it during specially designed ‘drop chambers’ and parabolic flights. Despite Virgin Galactic’s tweet about the crew being in zero gravity, the gravitational pull was about 9.5 square meters per second, which would have been about 97 percent of it on the surface. The weightlessness experienced was actually largely due to a free fall.
Opinions on space tourism are not the same
The first billionaire in space has excited many others, who think that one day they too will be able to see the Earth from an altitude of 85 kilometers, if they can spend 2.5 million dollars for this one-hour flight. . However, public opinion is not uniform and many have underlined that the money could have been used to eradicate poverty and tackle the current pandemic.
It also has an environmental impact. According to Virgin Galactic, the single flight of Unity caused 1.2 tonnes of carbon emissions. This is not much in terms of aviation, but when such flights happen regularly, then there will be more carbon emissions too. On the other hand, Blue Origin’s engines will run on liquid hydrogen and thus emissions will be minimal.
SpaceX ahead of Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin
Virgin Galactic may have overtaken Blue Origin, but SpaceX is ahead of these two in private space exploration. She is focusing on flying to the International Space Station (ISS) and on more exciting space tourism, such as going to and from the moon, which would certainly add up to space travel.
SpaceX’s success rate, including the Crew Dragon 2 vehicle, means that its ‘DearMoon’ project has a good chance of being successful. However, this may take time. There are also plans to develop a new rocket for the first space tourism step, which will be known as Starship.
The real fun will come when companies reach ‘classroom’
Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic is preparing to develop a supersonic passenger transport aircraft as a successor to the Concorde, capable of carrying 19 passengers from Los Angeles to Sydney in seven hours. He has also received a small contract from NASA for research on flights.
Blue Origin has also signed an agreement with NASA on vision and technology support for the operation of manned space flights in the future. However, the real thrill will come when these companies are able to get into the ‘orbit’, test new technology, significantly aid in scientific research and open their doors to more people who are not the ‘super rich’. Huh.
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