Fly Virgin Galactic with Bitcoin (I): Why so few people have flown in space
|Monday 10 February 2014||Text by Aníbal Baranek under General aviation|
Until October 4, 1957 the only man made objects that had left space had been a few V-2 Rockets. On the day Sputnik first flew humanity started a new era, one in which, supposedly, the outer space would be occupied by mankind in peace.
However the space race between the URSS and the United States was a hybrid between war and peace. Satellites were sent to orbit and slowly manned missions began. They were meant as peaceful enterprises as proved by the fact that the leading agency in the US was NASA, to the chagrin of the US Air Force (USAF). But the military applications of spy satellites are undeniable, and the rockets that carried men to the moon or sent satellites to the edges of the solar system proved the ability to send nuclear weapons to anywhere in the planet. These flights showcased the military might of the superpowers in the same way that nuclear explosions in 50s marked the entry of the five nuclear Powers (United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China) to the nuclear “club”.
Successful programs were run, from Mercury to the glory of Apollo 11 when, for the first time ever, a human being set foot on the moon. Along the way a few pioneers left their lives. Names of missions like Apollo I, Soyuz 11, Challenger, Columbia. There were many, but not as many as the ones who died while aviation went from the Wright Flyer to the 747. A period that also lasted about 60 years and saw millions of human being flying as a matter of course today, rather than the few hundreds that have flown to space so far.
Perhaps the reason for this is that, while the technology in aviation owes a lot to the military it has also benefited from an important input from the civilian world. Without the jet engine, high altitude flight, pressured cockpits, blind navigation and other inventions Flight as we know it would be very different. But Pan Am, British Airways, the Collier Trophy and other civilian enterprises have made a significant contribution too.
One of the most important, yet least known aviation dates may be the 1925 Airmail act, by which the US Congress authorized the Post office to contract air mail with civilian airlines rather than the military. It can be argued that this piece of legislation created Commercial Aviation.
The path from the first air mail companies to the ultra-low cost airlines of today is long and interesting but falls outside the scope of this article. It is important to note, though, than in those sixty years air travel became affordable for a lot of people.
Space travel however has not, until now, moved beyond government founded activities. And perhaps the biggest difference is that while governments have huge budgets with which to fix problems private companies have not. They must rely on ingenuity to keep costs down.
Engineers say you can solve a problem in two ways, with ingenuity or by throwing money at it. The space race was also an economic race measuring the might of the Soviet Union against the USA. No private individual could have afforded the unmanned Saturn V lunches that preceded Neil Armstrong´s famous “small step”. But with enough ingenuity you may also be able to do it. It will just take longer.
Enter the Ansari X prize
The first X prize was established in 1996 as a 10 million dollar award to the first civilian team to fly to space. In their words: “The Ansari X PRIZE was modeled after the Orteig Prize, won by Charles Lindbergh in 1927 for being the first to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, and mirrored the hundreds of aviation incentive prizes offered early in the 20th century that helped create today’s $300 billion commercial aviation industry. Dr. Peter Diamandis designed the prize after reading The Spirit of St. Louis about the winning of the Orteig Prize. In 1996, he formally announced the prize in St. Louis, and the race was on.
The Ansari family shared our vision and agreed to join the revolution by becoming the title sponsors of the first X PRIZE, jumpstarting 26 teams from 7 different nations to pursue their passions by competing for the prize. Those 26 teams combined spent more than $100 million to win the prize. Since SpaceShipOne won the prize, there has been more than $1.5 billion dollars in public and private expenditure in support of the private spaceflight industry”.
Scaled Composites, the team who won the price did so with a space ship designed by Burt Rutan. Rutan is no stranger to world records as proven by Voyager, the first airplane ever to fly around the world without landing or air refueling, Global Flyer, which repeated the feat with a single pilot; and other futuristic planes such as the Long Ez and X-47, the first unmanned airplane to land and take off from an Aircraft Carrier.
After the success of Space Ship One Burt Rutan joined forces with Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Airlines to create Virgin Galactic.
How many tickets to the moon could you sell if the price was 1 billon dollars? Perhaps one. How many tickets to a low orbit can you sell if the price is two hundred thousand dollars? The answer that Virgin Galactic has is hundreds, perhaps thousands, perhaps tens of thousands if they can make the flights more affordable.
To be continued…
(On the last part of this article we will cover the advances made by Virgin Galactic in these years and talk about the near future when the first space tourists will leave the Earth).
Headline photo: The WhiteKnight transport the SpaceShipOne (photo: Scaled Composites LLC).