Space Tourists (2006)
The sci-fi generation who felt let down by NASA are now in their 50s and 60s, and they are determined to realise their childhood dream of roaring rockets - even if it means putting their hands in their pockets and building their own. They say anyone will be able to holiday in orbit within three years. But who will be the first to get tourists into space? BBC Horizon looks at the contenders, from Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic to Jeff Bezos, founder of amazon.com. The race is on!
“Only about 400 people have become astronauts in the last 50 years. We will make 1000 astronauts in our first year. Most people’s grandchildren should be able to go into space. Millions will be able to afford it if we are right in our calculations. Taxi drivers will be able to go into space.” – Richard Branson. Thousands are now queuing up for a seat into space – an amazing 21,000 applicants have already paid Virgin Galactic
the whole sum of $200,000 up front.
The lunar landings in 1969 seemed to herald the dawn of space exploration. Then the US space effort ground to a halt, and the whole extraterrestrial adventure seemed to be over. But the sci-fi generation who felt let down by NASA are now in their 50s and 60s, and they are determined to realise their childhood dream of roaring rockets – even if it means putting their hands in their pockets and building their own. But who will be the first to get tourists into space?
Richard Branson registered the name Virgin Galactic as long ago as 1999. In 2001, when the project got under way, it was a big gamble. But Branson’s collaboration with Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, ensured the money ploughed in. Confidence is gaining, with the first flight scheduled for 2008. The key, Branson says, is to overcome the problems on the return leg. To prepare for the heat generated on entering the Earth’s atmosphere, the tail assembly of Virgin’s spaceship hinges upwards at an angle of 70 degrees, which slows the space shuttle so it falls belly first.
Self-proclaimed geek John Carmack perfected the genre of computer game known as the first-person shooter, in which players roam around a 3-D world – generally as a character who has a rocket launcher and a serious grudge to settle. In his spare time he has set up Armadillo Aerospace near Dallas. Here a small team works on computer- controlled hydrogen peroxide rocket vehicles, with an eye towards manned suborbital vehicle development in the coming years. Their success has been marred by one problem after another, the last being the loss of their rocket Black Armadillo last year in a fire. Despite this, John is confident. “We may not be as well known as Virgin Galactic, we may have an armadillo as our mascot, but we’re still the best!”
Elon Musk made $1.5 billion when he sold his online payment system, Paypal, to eBay in 2002. With most of the other space entrepreneurs focussed on suborbital flight, Elon is one step ahead. His powerful Falcon V rocket’s maiden flight is targeted for mid-2006, and could be capable of carrying five people into orbit. If Elon succeeds, he could win the next big space prize of $50 million, established by Las Vegas hotelier Robert Bigelow. Through Bigelow Aerospace, Robert wants to expand his real estate empire off-planet, with the first commercial space stations, and to succeed in his venture he needs an orbital passenger vehicle. Elon is convinced he can win the prize by the 2010 deadline.
The competition is fierce. One thing is sure: now that the state monopoly has been broken, the real golden era of space is about to begin...
Producer: Daniel Barry
Series Editor: Andrew Cohen
A BBC/Science Channel co-production