Could rockets soon replace aircraft for long-haul travel?

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Richard Branson floating around in zero gravity on the edge of space last week - Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson floating around in zero gravity on the edge of space last week - Virgin Galactic

Last week, Richard Branson became the first billionaire to successfully blast off to the edge of space aboard his suborbital spacecraft, VSS Unity, along with two pilots and three other crew members.

The first test flight with a full crew in the cabin, it reached an altitude of 53.3 miles after being released by its mothership, before gliding smoothly back down to a runway at Spaceport America.

“I have dreamt about this moment since I was a child, but nothing could have prepared me for the view of the Earth from space,” said Branson on touching down. “We are at the vanguard of a new space age. Our mission is to make space more accessible to all and I can’t wait to share this experience with aspiring astronauts around the world.”

While the $250,000 price tag per person for the flights that will follow does not shout accessible to me (even with the spacesuit thrown in), this successful mission is a landmark moment for the commercial space industry and means civilian space flight could start as early as next spring, which is a pretty big deal.

Branson and his fellow Mission Specialists last week
Branson and his fellow Mission Specialists last week

This week it was the turn of Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, who travelled 62 miles up aboard his company Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard rocket, along with his younger brother Mark and two people who have become the youngest and oldest to travel into space: the first paying customer, a Dutch 18-year-old called Oliver Daemen, and 82-year-old aerospace pioneer Wally Funk.

But where’s Elon Musk? Don’t worry, he’s doing something even more ambitious in September with his pioneering rocket launch company SpaceX, by joining an all-civilian crew using a Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft for a several-day orbital mission aboard its Crew Dragon capsule.

Now that sending ‘ordinary’ people into space has become a reality, what’s next? This lot have all come up with some pretty interesting ideas. Bezos, for instance, has said his goal is to move all heavy industry off Earth into a new settlement on Mars, so that Earth can become one giant national park.

Musk has long talked of developing point-to-point space travel between two terrestrial locations using SpaceX’s Starship rocket. This would mean flying paying customers from, say, New York to Shanghai – a flight that would normally take about 16 hours – in just 40 minutes.

“If you’re building this thing to go to the moon and Mars, why not go to other places on earth as well?” said Musk, who has spoken of sending a million people to Mars by 2050 by launching building a fleet of 1000 Starship rockets, each of which would costs $62 million to build, at a space industry conference in 2017.

Tail-cone view of Earth from VSS Unity
Tail-cone view of Earth from VSS Unity

Musk was not the first to consider it, with previous detailed reports by US Department for Transportation and the International Space University of Strasbourg noting it could cut transport time to a third of what the supersonic Concorde had achieved but also that there would be many, many hurdles to be got over before it could work.

A report by investment banking company UBS predicted this could become reality by the late 2020s, although this timeline seems unlikely, given the safety certification process alone can take years.

The report calculated there are 800 routes around the world of ten hours or more, servicing over 150 million passengers, so claimed that capturing even a small percentage of that market – and given the growing number of both HNWIs and UHNWIs around the world, there would be takers – is an important material revenue opportunity.

However, the risk of explosions, the physical impact of leaving and re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere for those on board, the environmental impact of burning that much fuel, the infrastructure needed on the ground and local transportation are just some of the issues involved.

According to the UBS report, the average cost of a long-haul flight is about $2,500. In order to be financially viable, a point-to-point flight would have to cost about $12,000 per person, which is what it cost to fly Concorde. However, they would have to convince customers that it was safe, physically accessible and easy enough to use on a regular basis, as even among the ultra-rich, the ‘go once to say you’ve been’ market is not sustainable in the long term.

VSS Unity gliding back down to Earth
VSS Unity gliding back down to Earth

Branson has also been looking at additional ways to monetise space tourism and part of Virgin Galactic’s growth strategy, as mentioned in the company’s first earnings report last year, is the development of “high speed global mobility vehicles that drastically reduce travel time from point to point,” with a similar example of Los Angeles to Tokyo taking two hours.

They recently announced the launch of the development of Mach 3 Aircraft, a cutting-edge high-speed aircraft collaboration with Rolls-Royce, with a focus on environmental sustainability (they will be working towards use of state-of-the-art sustainable aviation fuel), customer comfort and very high speeds.

But Branson, Bezos and Musk aren’t the only ones who mean business in 2021.

On October 5, a Russian Soyuz rocket will launch the Soyuz MS-19 crew capsule to the International Space Station with Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov and two space tourists: Russian film director Klim Shipenko and a (as yet un-named) Russian actress, who plans to film a movie while spending one week in space.

Then on October 31, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to lift off from the Guiana Space CEnter in Kouru, French Guiana and on December 8, a Russian Soyuz rocket will launch the Soyuz MS-20 crew capsule to the International Space Station with Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and video producer Yozo Hirano.

A Gemenid meteor shower
A Gemenid meteor shower

Space enthusiasts who aren’t lucky enough to be joining any of these crews should consider looking out for one of the many meteor showers due to take place in the second half of the year, including the annual Perseids Bright Meteor Shower, when the earth ploughs into debris left behind from Comet Swift-Tuttle, which last passed close to earth in 1992.

According to Space.com, while the comet poses no threat to the planet in the foreseeable future, its nucleus of six miles in diameter is about the same size as the one that crashed into the earth about 66 million years ago and killed the dinosaurs.

It should peak visibly in the UK the nights of 12 and 13 August and offer many bright fast meteors with trains. Alternatively, there’s the annual Haley’s Comet-associated Orionid meteor shower will also peak on 21 October, the Leonids the nights of 17 and 18 November and Gemenids the night of 14 December. December 4 will be the only total solar eclipse of the year and the last one until 2023, but you’ll have to go to Antarctica to see it.

So where does that leave commercial point-to-point space flight? According to Scott Pace, Executive Secretary of the National Space Council, we should all be holding our horses.

“I see us working right now on trying to get the suborbital market up and running and stabilised,” said Pace. “I think people look forward to the possibility of point-to-point passenger and cargo travel, but right now just getting routine suborbital access to space is where the action is.”

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