I always thought I would have to become a NASA astronaut if I wanted to go to space- until Sunday that was the only way I could travel beyond our planet. NASA has only sent 339 people to space since the beginning of its space program in 1958. Astronauts were meant to set a standard of excellence- they were modern day superheroes. At the beginning of the program, NASA only selected military test pilots. Then NASA extended applications to anyone with a technical background. If you look down the list you’ll notice that most NASA astronauts are private pilots, scuba divers, bilingual, have a PhD, and played a professional sport at one point in their life. The bar is extremely high.
Although being a NASA astronaut seems glamorous, most astronauts were completely down to Earth. They went to schools to talk with young students in their free time, lived modestly, and for all intents and purposes were regular Americans with agreeable personalities. While I was in high school, the commander of the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield, went viral for playing songs over the ukulele while in space. He was a heartwarming figure that reminded me of one of my uncles. He didn’t have the Hollywood flare you’d expect of being a professional space traveler.
We can’t look past the fact that we are living in a time of worsening wealth inequality, and that the sky we all share is being reserved for those who can afford to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to explore it.
Over the course of my lifetime commercial space companies have been trying to completely change the space industry. The respectable image of the NASA astronaut was replaced by billionaires Elon Musk, Sir Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos. They decided that space travel shouldn’t have to look a certain way or carry a national agenda. Over the past twenty years they worked on commercial vehicles to make space accessible to anyone that wanted to buy a seat. This past Sunday marked an important milestone in that journey. Sir Richard Branson flew his own spaceship into space. This historic Virgin Galactic flight marked the start of a new Commercial Space Age.
The Unity 22 crew started their journey at Spaceport America in Mojave. The spaceship was flown about 50,000 feet up by the mothership. It then detached, ignited its engines, and blasted straight up to the upper atmosphere with a max speed of Mach 3.5 (that’s three and a half times the speed of sound). The crew then enjoyed a few moments of weightlessness at the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere, before returning back to Earth. At the end of the flight the Unity 22 Crew received their wings from Chris Hadfield, a symbolic passing of the torch from one era of astronauts to another.
Of course, we aren’t entering this time without hesitation. We can’t look past the fact that we are living in a time of worsening wealth inequality, and that the sky we all share is being reserved for those who can afford to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to explore it. Whether you’re a research group, government agency, non profit, or space enthusiast, that price tag still keeps space travel inaccessible. Closing the cost gap should be the number one priority of commercial space companies as we move forward.
The goal of this Commercial Space Age is to open up our universe to the world- not just to one nation, not just to one kind of person, and not just to one class. But to anyone inspired by the scale of our universe and curious enough to explore it. The late Stephen Hawking named the Virgin Galactic Spaceship Unity. That one word should serve as a reminder that this universe does not belong to any of us, and we must continue to work towards a united world as we walk into the future.