BEEN THERE; DONE THAT - IN ZERO GRAVITY
Until recently, only nation states and their agencies were capable of sending satellites and astro-nauts into space. We’ve all heard of NASA, ESA, and the ISS (International Space Station), but now some private firms are challenging those institutions. The question is: are these companies merely chasing tourist dollars, or will their space exploration benefit humanity?
Currently, there are at least four big American and two British companies involved in the new space race - the mission to send tourists to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere. There they can experience the thrills of weightlessness and the marvellous sight of our planet so far away.
One such company, Blue Origin, was founded by Jeff Bezos. The billionaire Bezos was the man behind Amazon, America’s largest online retailer. The main project of Blue Origin is a vertical take-off and landing rocket, designed exclusively for tourism.
Armadillo Aerospace was also set up by a well-known American: John Carmack. He gave the world the video games Doom and Quake. Armadillo is developing a similar spacecraft to that of Blue Origin. Fares for suborbital trips will start at around $100,000. Although the spacecraft is still in the testing stage, a travel agency, Space Adventures, has signed a deal with Armadillo to sell seats.
A cheaper alternative to Armadillo’s trip may be a ride on a Lynx spacecraft. This is the brain- child of Jeff Greason, of XCOR Aerospace. This company subcontracts for NASA, and is well known for producing reliable craft. Its new tourist spacecraft can take off and land on a runway at a civilian airport. It may be able to make four daily suborbital flights, but will carry only one passenger each time.
Richard Branson, a British entrepreneur, is planning to start space-tourist flights on his Virgin Galactic craft. These will carry six passengers. paying up to $200,000 for their space thrill. Once thrust upwards, the craft will head for the edge of the atmosphere. The whole journey will last just a few minutes.
Starchaser, a company headed by Briton, Steve Bennet, hopes its rockets will offer a more enduring experience - a 20-minute flight, several minutes of which will be spent in zero gravity.
But probably the most impressive private space company is SpaceX. This was set up by Elon Musk, an internet entrepreneur born in South Africa. Musk made his fortune creating PayPal, which eBay bought from him for $1.5bn. While anyone else with that kind of money may well have retired. Musk works 100 hours a week at his Los Angeles rocket factory, intent on realising his dream.
For Musk, space travel is not just about ticking things off in a Lonely Planet guidebook. He believes the future of humanity lies in its ability to colonise other planets. Since his days as a student at Penn State University, he has been passionate about the future. He is certain living on other planets is the only way humans can prevent self-destruction or save themselves from a catastrophic event like the impact of a large meteorite.
Musk established SpaceX in 2002. Yet within only seven years it had launched a satellite from its rocket, Falcon 1. By contrast, agencies like NASA and ESA take decades to achieve similar feats. In 2010, SpaceX sent its much larger Falcon 9 rocket into space. The next venture is to provide a taxi service to the ISS with Dragon, a small shuttle that Falcon 9 launches. This will deliver cargo and astronauts to the station. Dragon is radically different in design from the existing Shuttle, and far less costly.
In fact, before building Falcon and Dragon, Musk thoroughly researched the costs of building and launching rockets. He could not understand why government agencies spent so much money on these activities, and he concluded, quite simply, that they were inefficient. To prove his theory, SpaceX has produced the Merlin engine, which is elegantly designed, extremely powerful, and relatively cheap. It runs on highly refuted kerosene that costs half the price of other rocket fuel. In most of SpaceX’s spacecraft, parts are re-usable, an innovation in the industry. There are also fewer stages in rocket transformation. That is: there are fewer times a rocket separates into smaller parts. All of this means spacecraft can be produced at a fraction of the cost of competitors while maintaining the same high safety Standards.
Musk maintains that the Falcon 9, a rocket that carries astronauts, is so powerful it could already reach Mars if it were assembled in Earth‘s orbit. He believes this technological advance will occur within 20 years - something most experts consider unlikely. Moreover, he firmly believes living on Mars is possible within the lifetime of his children. For him, the new space race is not only about selling tickets for a mind-blowing ride, but also about securing the future of our species.
For other private companies, however, there is no urge to invest heavily in missions to distant planets. Making a profit at the high end of the tourist market here on Earth is their only goal.
Choose NO MORE THAN TWO WORDS AND / OR A NUMBER from the passage for each answer.
Write your answers in boxes 1-5 on your answer sheet.
1. A ticket on one of Armadillo Aerospace‘s trips into space is likely to cost____________.
2. A single passenger will journey on a(n)________________ spacecraft.
3. A ride on Virgin Galactic will take only ________________minutes.
4. On a Starchaser spacecraft, a passenger will experience________minutes of weightlessness.
5.Elon Musk sold______________, and set up SpaceX, which builds rockets.