Prepare for holidays in space

After Richard Branson's successful voyage, a more accessible era of space travel has begun

Zero gravity during Sunday's Virgin Galactic flight into space. EPA
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At the turn of the 20th century, Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky predicted that humans would reach space by 2017. Considered by many to be the father of astronautics, stargazers owe him a great deal. But his prediction was miles off. Yuri Gagarin flew into space in 1961, and since then a host of countries has sent people to space, including the UAE's Hazza Al Mansouri in 2019.

On Sunday, a whole new phase in extraterrestrial travel began when British billionaire Richard Branson flew nearly 86 kilometres above the earth's surface, 6km over the altitude that Nasa considers to be outer space. Mr Branson is not a trained astronaut. He is a businessman who since 2004 has been racing against other companies to create an enterprise that sells its customers the chance to fly beyond our planet.

Safely commercialising space travel paves the way for many other milestones beyond the atmosphere. There are already plans, for example, to create an orbital hotel. The venture's backers predict it will be operational by 2027.

But the biggest revolution ushered in by Mr Branson is a more fundamental one. Very soon, normal people, albeit only rich ones for now, will be able to go to space. Training for a Nasa astronaut can last as long as two years, and only begins after an exceptionally competitive selection process, which in 2020 comprised 12,000 possible candidates. Even Laika, the Soviet space dog who completed her mission in 1957, underwent selection and training. To date, a little more than 550 astronauts – just 10 per cent of them women − have had this huge privilege.

If the success of programmes such as Mr Branson's continues, that will all change very quickly. Virgin Galactic – Mr Branson's company – already has more than 600 people on its waiting list, which, if cleared, would double the current number of history's space travellers. While impressive, the figure will remain limited for some time due to the vast costs involved. Tickets for a Virgin Galactic flight are priced at $250,000. Last month, Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos auctioned a seat on his spacecraft, that is expected to launch on July 20, for $28 million.

While it might take time for prices to be driven down, many forms of transport originally started out as affordable only for elites. Mr Branson has said he wants to "open space to everybody", and beyond tourism, the re-usable crafts being built by a number of firms, particularly at Elon Musk's SpaceX, will bring commercial operations beyond the earth's atmosphere into a more active, cheaper era.

What money cannot buy for those soon to be rocketed into the beyond is the legendary fame of pioneering astronauts, such as Neil Armstrong, Yuri Gagarin and Hazza Al Mansouri, who all embarked on new frontiers. Today's household names of space travel are not just those who fly the crafts, but the entrepreneurs that make these accessible voyages possible. And on Sunday, Mr Branson became the victor in this new, privatised space race.

Published: July 13, 2021, 3:00 AM