Richard Branson pursues space tourism—research topic on commercial space travel coming

White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo during a flyby at Spaceport America. (Credit: Jeff Foust)

White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo during a flyby at Spaceport America. (Credit: Jeff Foust)

If U.K. billionaire Richard Branson has his way, space travel will soon be something that even the non-NASA affiliated can experience—for a mere $200,000 that is. These kinds of non-government projects allow groups like NASA to pursue new areas of study, and, of course, space exploration is a rich area for research. Will Branson be successful in opening up commercial space travel and creating space tourism for the masses? Only time will tell if his plans will take flight.

To infinity and beyond

Richard Branson says that his Virgin Galactic venture will be able to transport its first paying customer by the end of 2014. In “Branson Says Space Unit to Fly Paying Clients in 2014” for Bloomberg Businessweek posted on February 11, 2014, Deena Kamel Yousef reports the entrepreneur’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle completed its third rocket-powered supersonic flight from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California in January.

Kamel Yousef also writes that Branson’s detractors claim “a combination of safety regulations, performance issues and the physical challenges of a rocket launch means Virgin Galactic is unlikely ever to attain its goal of carrying passengers into sub-orbital flight.” Branson plans to prove such skeptics of space tourism wrong, but points out that the ultimate goal is for trips between distant cities, like London and Sydney, to be conducted at near-orbital speeds within the next 12 years.

Commercial space travel

Branson’s efforts to create space tourism are not the only game in town, however, when it comes to private spacecraft. Sarah Fister Gale wrote for the April 2013 issue of PM Network,The Next Step in the Final Frontier,” about other efforts by non-government groups interested in forms of space travel. She writes that Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) are three U.S.-based “commercial companies working on spacecraft using NASA seed money.” SNC’s project, Dream Chaser, is projected to be ready for commercial space travel by early 2016.

Meanwhile, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) sent an unmanned spacecraft, Dragon, to the International Space Station (ISS) in October 2012. Fister Gale writes, “When managed effectively, commercial partnerships enable federal agencies to pursue their scientific mandates in the face of fluctuating budgets and uncertain priorities. That’s increasingly important as national governments scramble to find funding for space exploration and innovation.”

Final frontier

Although the U.S. has eliminated further manned space flights via space shuttle, President Obama still has plans for NASA and the space program. Charles Bolden posted on the NASA blog, “President Obama’s National Space Transportation Policy: A Bold Vision for Space,” on November 21, 2013, with some insight into the future of space travel for the United States, including “the expansion of a domestic commercial space industry for low-Earth orbit transportation” and plans to take humans to an asteroid in the next decade and Mars by the 2030s.

Bolden’s post credits commercial space travel plans as beneficial to NASA’s efforts to develop “a heavy lift launch capability to travel further into space than ever before.”

Ultimately, many involved with space exploration seem to hope that by allowing commercial space travel, government groups, such as NASA, will be able to conduct research to create the next generation of heavy lift launch vehicles. Without the creation of these newer systems, NASA won’t be able to realize the goals of deep space exploration like missions to an asteroid or Mars. Whether or not space tourism takes hold, hopefully the efforts of Richard Branson and his ilk will be beneficial to our larger space travel and exploration goals.

Want to learn more about space policy? Check out Questia—particularly the section on space exploration

Do you think that non-astronauts will soon be able to travel into space? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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