Richard Branson hopes to offer people flights into space while Elon Musk is working on a commercial launch of satellites. Both entrepreneurs have progressed quite far with their plans and so travelling into space in our lifetime is definitely expected. In fact, I’d say within the next 10 years!
The idea is very different to conventional space shuttles or a rocket. Instead, an aircraft will be flown on the back of a bigger aircraft as close to the earth’s atmosphere. The smaller aircraft would then need to propel itself fast enough to escape the earth’s gravitational field.
Developments in technology have made this possible. Composites are much stronger yet lighter. Spacecraft are also bigger than any commercial aircraft and have a large wingspan to improve efficiency and help lift a heavy load. Compared to the sixties when giant rockets were used just once, the method of piggybacking one aircraft off another means there’s now little wastage - they can return to earth and be used again.
I think tourists will wear space suits to help them deal with the acceleration and G-force they will feel. They will experience a sudden feeling of weightlessness because they will be far enough away from earth that they won’t feel the gravitational pull. Once they leave the atmosphere, they will start seeing the curvature of the earth and the sky colour transition from blue to black.
I will be interested to see what litigation will be required though – which country will check if procedures have been followed correctly? Will it be the county where the spacecraft is launched? Or where the company is registered?
It’s inevitable the first tourists into space will be the ones with the biggest wallets. It all depends on how much people are willing to pay to have this experience (Branson’s Virgin Galactic aims to charge US$250,000 a seat). But once the first flight takes place and more follow, I expect the price will drastically fall over time and more people will be able to afford the experience.
It’s the next big thing to be achieved and there’s certainly a market to achieve it for.