Virgin Galactic tells its customers they can be astronauts, but really they will be tourists on a rollercoaster ride, writes Fiona McCade
Do you remember John Gummer? He was Margaret Thatcher’s minister of agriculture at the height of the BSE crisis, and he publicly fed his four-year-old daughter a beefburger to prove to the world that he had faith in British beef, even if nobody else did. According to legend, despite Gummer announcing to the congregated press that the burger was “absolutely delicious”, the canny child refused to touch it.
Every time I see Richard Branson these days, I think of John Gummer, his little girl and that burger. Branson is still telling the world that he is confident that his space tours company Virgin Galactic will continue to “move forward”, even though it suffered its fourth fatality last Friday when its shuttle SpaceShipTwo crashed into the Mojave desert, injuring the pilot and killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury.
Since the crash, Branson has said that he still thinks “the risk is worth it” and that “there is no way I would ask others to go on a Virgin Galactic flight if I didn’t feel it was safe enough for myself”, so he sees no reason to change his plan to travel on the first scheduled flight – whenever that might happen – with his children in tow.
If I were Sir Richard’s offspring, I wouldn’t be too happy about that. In fact, I’d be saying: “No way am I going up in that thing.”
I wish I shared Branson’s dreams of conquering the thermosphere, because space stuff usually excites me. I’m glad that we’re looking to the stars, because I think space exploration gives humanity a better and healthier understanding, not just of the cosmos, but also of ourselves and our profound lack of importance in the greater scheme of things. Space is really the only thing that truly deserves to be called “awesome”, so I’m up for boldly going as far into it as possible. What I’m not up for is treating it like a fairground.
Branson says his Virgin Galactic programme is “at the cutting edge of space”, and when he welcomed his first batch of extremely rich customers (a seat reservation on a Virgin spaceship costs around £155,000) he said: “As part of our wonderful, pioneering future astronaut community, your place in history is assured.”
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The trouble with that statement is that Virgin Galactic customers will be astronauts like anyone on a CalMac ferry is a sailor. You won’t be going to infinity and beyond, that’s for sure. For your money, you’ll go up – admittedly, very fast – 68 miles into sub-orbital space. During the two-hour trip, you will experience five minutes of weightlessness. Then you will come down again. In my book, that does not make you an astronaut or worthy of a page in the history books. That makes you a tourist.
As everybody knows, you need the right stuff to go into space, but until a man – or woman – walks on Mars, all the big, important human steps have already been taken. The first sub-orbital space flight happened a full 53 years ago, so technically a Virgin Galactic flight isn’t offering anything new. For the few that can afford it, it will be like going on the most cutting-edge rollercoaster the world can currently offer. It’s a wild ride, but that’s all it is: just a ride.
Yet people are dying so the rich and famous can go on this ride, and that seems very wrong to me. This gold-plated plaything is costing lives, but I can’t see what it’s achieving, apart from making a handful of grotesquely wealthy people feel even more privileged than they did before.
Nasa currently spends about £10.6 billion on its space programme. The Russians and the European Space Agency both spend around £3.5bn each. The expenditure of the rest of the world’s space programmes put together comes to around £6bn. That’s a lot of money and some very serious rocket scientists working full-time to push forward the boundaries of mankind’s knowledge of the cosmos. So despite the claims that they are developing “radical” new technology, I doubt very much that the Virgin Galactic team will come up with anything vital to space exploration that nobody else has yet considered.
Virgin Galactic’s space race is against other companies whose ultimate ambition is to shoot the well-heeled into the heavens for a jolly jaunt. Perhaps it is this desperation to be the first private company to inaugurate a space flight that has caused mistakes to be made.
All through history, people have given their lives to take the sort of giant leaps that push us all into a different kind of future. When they die chasing a dream, it makes losing them a little easier to bear. When they die so that the moneyed classes can have an expensive thrill, it becomes unbearable.
As far as Branson is concerned, once the investigation into last week’s crash is complete, it’s onward and upward. However, the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety’s lead expert in rocket propulsion has announced that: “They should stop, give up. Go away and do something they might be good at – like selling mobile phones. They should stay out of the space business.”
Since business is what this is really about, I’m sure travellers everywhere also wish that Sir Richard would drop this dangerous plaything and turn his attention back to making his trains and planes run better. Or concentrate his considerable resources on his other pet projects, such as developing renewable energy, fighting climate change or doing just about anything to benefit those of us still left struggling on the surface of planet Earth, rather than those gaily hurtling about above it.
The celebrities who booked seats on SpaceShipTwo are starting to demand refunds, but I think only one thing might stop Sir Richard in his tracks. If only his children would say: “You go if you want, Dad, but we’re staying right here.”
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