I will never, ever forget being in the desert at Edwards Air Force Base to welcome the Columbia Space Shuttle home in 1981. G and I took Mom, Dad, my very old aunt Becky, my newborn Sky, young Ben and my beloved dog Blue. What a moment!
We arrived in the dark before dawn and became one family among thousands. The valley was covered with every kind of RV possible, from pick-up truck tents to massive mobile homes with satellite TV antennae on their roofs. It was a festival of everyone! Citizen shareholders from all walks of life, a melting pot of humanity. The crowd was joyful, positive and filled with good will. Flags fluttered in the breeze, vendors hawked their souvenirs, breakfasts were shared with strangers, and then! Oh, that moment when the sonic boom announced her arrival! Thousands of faces simultaneously turned up to the heavens. Rich, poor, young, old, hippie, soldier, nerds, cheerleaders, all colors, all cultures, all humanity.
It was suddenly silent, a huge, collective holding of breath, waiting for a ship to land from outer space. Expectant hope, despite all the pundits all year before showing us diagrams and models of how Columbia and her crew would burn up in the atmospheric interface during re-entry.
No, naysayers! Not that magnificent bird!
How gracefully she circled the valley, the early morning sun glinting off her white wings. She was a glider and was silent as she descended. The only sound in the valley was the flags flapping in the breeze.
When her back wheels touched down, the iconic dust plumes streaked out behind her, the front wheel came softly down, and that magnificent marvel came to a full stop with her front wheel on the exact line laid out for her. Awed silence. Then a ROAR, people hugging, crying, laughing and cheering that great victory of imagination, optimism and hope over all the dark negativity humanity drowns its soul with. One of the greatest days of my life.
Richard Branson’s VSS Unity glides to a landing on July 11
On July 11, in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the VSS Unity was launched into space from its mother ship, known as White Knight Two or VMSEve. Eve is the name of billionaire entrepreneur and commercial space travel developer Richard Branson’s mother (hence, mother ship). From this double fuselage carrier plane, the VSS Unity rocket plane would be launched into space. The mother ship carried the rocket plane. They climbed together to an altitude just below 50,000 feet. The rocket plane was released and its engine ignited, sending the craft up a little over Mach 3 to approximately 300,000 feet above Earth.
The crew on board included Richard Branson, himself, along with three crew and two pilots. Branson labeled himself as a mission specialist, which he sure is. He has been working on developing commercial space travel for 17 years. He is one of the pioneers of public space travel. Jackie Salo, writing for the NY Post, reports, Branson had joined the flight to test the customer experience for future space tourists and was quoted as saying,“Initially, I thought testing the customer experience was a little bit of an excuse to get me on it. It wasn’t. It’s so great to get out there and test the customer experience. You get lists and lists of the little things, and it’s the little details that matter.”
Space travel has entered a new era! Already, at least 22 seats have been sold for future flight at $250,000 per ticket! Now, don’t succumb to that venal sin, Envy. Remember when flat screen TVs were only for the very rich, priced at $20,000? Thanks to competition, it did not take long for prices to plummet so the general public could easily access that “new” technology. You have to start somewhere, folks! When private companies compete to outdo each other for our business, think of the ramifications. You could fly up, let the Earth turn on its axis below and come down on the other side of the world in an hour and a half!! How great would that be?! When I think of the many slogs my brother, David, has made between here and India, I just hope he gets to travel there by space one day.
SUBORBITAL AND ORBITAL SPACE EXPLAINED
A lot of space news will be coming at you, dear readers, so I want you to know the difference between suborbital and orbital space travel. Physics teacher David Woods explains, “It sounds like suborbital flight is just lower down than orbital, not as deep into space, but that isn’t true at all. It’s about your trajectory, a path that your rocket or spaceship takes. For you to be in orbit, you have to be going around the planet continually, moving fast enough that you will keep circling it forever. On the other hand, if you blast off and make a huge arc, eventually falling back to hit the earth, you never made it into orbit. Your flight was suborbital. No matter how far off into space you go, if your path causes you to fall back down to earth, then it is a suborbital flight.
How does this relate to space tourism? Well, let’s say that your spaceflight takes you to an altitude of 100 km above the earth. If you wanted to make it into orbit, you would have to reach a speed of almost 8000 miles per second. But if you just want to reach 100 km and fall back down to Earth, you would only need to go at a speed of about 1000 miles per second. That takes far less energy and therefore, is much less expensive (and safer). This is how space tourism could become a reality.”
GIANT STEPS FOR MANKIND
Just like the experience of being at the early landings of the Space Shuttle, so these new flights of private spacecraft destined to carry ordinary people to extraordinary places, fills a world-weary soul. There will be setbacks, there will be tragedies like the Challenger and even my beloved Columbia. But the pioneering spirit of special human beings, of independent seekers, will never be extinguished.