“Fly Me To The Moon” used to be a Frank Sinatra song. Soon, it might be something you can say to your travel agent.
Okay, so no one is selling tickets to the moon yet. But for $200,000 you can book a trip into sub-orbital space with Virgin Galactic to experience five minutes of weightlessness at zero gravity. The company doesn’t expect commercial flights to start for another nine to 18 months, but around 390 people have already paid the $20,000 deposit to reserve a seat.
Spaceships will depart from the newly-built Spaceport America, 45 miles north of Las Cruces, N.M. The spaceport, which cost around $198 million, was constructed with state taxpayer money specifically to provide a launch station for commercial flights into space. With a 20-year lease, Virgin Galactic is the key tenant and the only one currently preparing to blast tourists down the two-mile-long Gov. Bill Richardson Spaceway.
Increased interest in space tourism is part of a larger trend toward privatization of space travel. After scrapping plans for another manned trip to the moon last year, President Obama outlined a new path for NASA that emphasizes public-private collaboration. Obama said he hopes NASA will encourage private companies to “compete to design and build and launch new means of carrying people and materials out of our atmosphere.” NASA administrator Charles Bolden believes hundreds or thousands of people, employed by both the government and by private firms, might soon make their way into orbit, with competition driving down costs and encouraging innovation. One company, Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX, is already well on its way to developing vessels that can carry cargo and crewmembers to and from the International Space Station.
Virgin Galactic says its goal is “to end the exclusivity attached to manned space travel, which means designing a vehicle which can fly almost anyone to space and back safely.” Given the cost of tickets, space travel is likely to continue to be a pursuit of the few for at least a little while longer (though the price for Virgin Galactic tickets is significantly less than the millions that rival space tourism company Space Adventures has charged to carry private citizens into space). But the Virgin Group, owned by Richard Branson, has already tackled the airline, mobile communication, and financial services industries, so it seems reasonable to hope that it may eventually master budget space travel as well.
I would certainly like to experience a trip into space if I ever have the opportunity. But when I read about the progress being made in commercial space travel, I think more about my older cousins than myself.
April 12 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first manned trip into space, made by the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. I might take a moment that day to reflect on the milestone, but I won’t have much to remember; I was only 3 years old at the time. My cousins, on the other hand, were already old enough to know what was happening and to start dreaming of space. They’ve been dreaming about it ever since. They followed the exploits of Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, and they read everything written about Skylab and the space stations that followed. They exulted in the Space Shuttle’s successes and grieved at its failures. To this day, they come to central Florida whenever they can to watch rockets take off.
And I know, without them saying so, that in some corner of their minds, the little boys they once were would give anything for a seat on one of those soon-to-be-commercial space rides.
I hope my cousins get their chance to follow the trail blazed by the astronauts. The countdown has already begun.