It’s Moon Day 48 since Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, on July 21, 1969, and thus a timely background to a warning by US space and electric car tsar Elon Musk, that his private rocket company’s first passengers will have to be ‘brave’.
Musk isn’t reporting as making an allusion today to the Apollo 11 mission anniversary when he gave his candid but unsettling insight into where SpaceX was with its plans for a first test firing of its Falcon Heavy Rocket, which the enterprise will use to launch a sightseeing manned space flight around the far side of the Moon as early as next year.
But apart from the historic timing of his comments, the reality is that Musk’s SpaceX enterprise, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic sub-orbital joy rides to the edge of space, are both saying next year will see them take private passengers on different, yet very spectacular space flights.
Being somewhat edgier in his delivery than Branson, Musk chose to acknowledge the dangers of such flights, which, to be blunt, could involve the globally televised burning to death of a small payload of rich celebrities if anything goes seriously wrong with vehicles that involve the precision ignition and combustion of tons of highly explosive rocket fuels.
Branson has been more cautious in his commentary, in contrast to the very early years of the Virgin Galactic program, in which he kept promising, or confidently predicting, that regular flights to an altitude of more than 110 kilometres above the Earth, would be happening by 10, 9, 8, 7 …. years ago.
It’s only in recent months that he has resumed making confident predictions as to when Virgin Galactic will start carrying around six rocket riders ‘to the edge of’ rather than into ‘space.’ If his interview early in July as to the progress of test flights by the Virgin Galactic Spaceship is correct, there should be a whole series of manned and rocket powered flights by that vehicle coming up in 3, 2, 1 months. Or now. With himself on board.
To his very impressive credit, Branson does throw himself into such projects, including around-the-world balloon flights. He knows how to inspire people by being hands on. He will go into space with Stephen Hawking, the celebrated theoretical physicist, before the first paying passengers get their $200,000 dollars worth of what is a very theatrical, and inherently spectacular rocket ride involving being in a winged sub-orbital rocket ship first carried aloft to around 50,000 feet in a Virgin Mother Lifter and Dropper that looks a bit like a pterodactyl.
Virgin Galactic rides are going to be the 21st century equivalent of the Tiger Moth type barnstorming joy rides that some of our parents and grandparents may have taken for the price of a week’s wages in the 1920s from country paddocks or fair grounds. They were dangerous too. Flying was incredibly dangerous back in those days (but then so were steam trains and ocean liners) and it was the Bransons and Musks of a century ago who could see beyond the dusty, noisy itinerant circuses and their accompanying planes made out of canvas and wood to the mirage like outlines of the great flying machines of the future.
Both of these visionaries are now aiming for curtain raising private enterprise space flights as soon as next year. By Moon Day 49 the popular expectations of a future age of mass space flights may be very different to those of Moon Day 48.