Virgin Galactic has promised that space travel is within your grasp – provided $200,000 is also within your grasp. No sooner did they announce the promise than bureaucrats began demanding that space traveling passengers be kept perfectly safe!
Space tourism in science fiction has never been safe. Delos Harriman evaded government restrictions and took his longed-for trip to the moon anyway. Hm, maybe the bureaucrats had a point after all – that trip ended Harriman’s life.
In real life, everybody wants to walk away from the ultimate thrill-ride, the way they did the old TWA rocket at Disneyland. That’s the goal, says Xcor’s Jeff Greason, president of a company whose own hopes of winning the X-Prize just went up in smoke. “The uninvolved public has to be held to a very high level of safety. There’s no reason they should be exposed to a level of risk that’s different than they see from any other aspect of industrial life.”
Naturally, passengers will feel a lot safer leaving the atmosphere aboard something that resembles an aircraft, and not a flying Rube Goldberg contraption like some of the lesser contenders for the X-Prize.
SpaceShipOne was just one of 65 entries registered in the X-Prize competition, which included a wild assortment of spaceflight schemes. As Richard Foss wrote in “Space Cowboys” (published in June 2004):
“Some X Prize entries use technology that is almost in the realm of science fiction, even by the standards of visionary aerospace professionals. They look like finned needles, disks, Lear Jets with rocket packs, or alien craft as envisioned by someone with a taste for psychedelics. The vehicles begin their ascent into space on gigantic rockets or tethered beneath the world’s largest helium balloons, piggybacked on aircraft or taking off as aircraft themselves. They come down dangling from parachutes or giant parasails, splashing into oceans or landing at conventional airports either as a glider or under their own power.”
When booking your own first trip into space, don’t be deceived by superficial good looks. Science fiction warns tourism by passenger liner can be just as dangerous — remember Fifth Element (which also discourages traveling by taxi).
Virgin Galactic’s $200,000 ticket quote sounds high, but no doubt the price is right for a company planning to stay in business. In 1969, the president of PanAm guessed a seat on one of those 2001 space station shuttles would cost $5,000 once the service got going — and as we all know, his company didn’t make it to the 21st century.