Leisure space travel has suffered another setback that will push the deadline for commercial space travel further into the future. On October 31, 2014, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed on a test flight over California’s Mojave Desert, killing 1 pilot and severely injuring another. The delay is just one of many, though it comes mere months before the first scheduled leisure space flight.
The dream of leisure space travel practically began in 2004, when Burt Rutan’s and Mojave
Aerospace Ventures’ SpaceShipOne prototype won the Ansari X Prize. Virgin Group, founded by billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, then licensed Mohave Aerospace Ventures’ technology. Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS of Abu Dhabi then invested in Virgin Galactic, a company dedicated to developing a second-generation vehicle for commercial endeavors. One of those ventures was the transportation of private paying customers into space. In support of that venture, Virgin Galactic forged ahead, necessarily developing technology and facilities for the anticipated travel: SpaceShipTwo, of course, designed to give a suborbital joy ride into space and a glider ride back to Earth; White Knight Two, the jet-powered craft that launches the space craft; and Spaceport America, a controversial quarter-billion-dollar taxpayer funded hangar and runway in southern New Mexico.
In 2004, Richard Branson believed that leisure space flight would arrive in 2007. Private paying customers pay a lot in money and training: each ticket costs $250,000.00 and these “future astronauts” must undergo G-force training. Virgin Galactic attracted approximately 700 customers, including Stephen Hawking, Tom Hanks and Angelina Jolie, and collected trip deposits in excess of $80 million.
Unfortunately, the deadline has been repeatedly pushed back due to development and testing delays, as well as accidents. The first major accident occurred in 2007 during testing for rocket motor development: an explosion killed 3 workers and critically injured 3 other workers. This second accident comes after 3 prior rocket-powered flights by SpaceShipTwo, with no apparent problem prior to the crash, and after Branson’s announcement that he intends to make the first leisure space flight with his son in the spring of 2015.
With the debris of SpaceShipTwo scattered over several miles of the Mojave Desert and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigating the accident, leisure space flight is again indefinitely rescheduled.
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