What’s in Store for the Future of Space Aviation?5 min read

With the implementation of widespread space tourism on the horizon in the near future, we must change how we look at space aviation. No longer can it be considered a fringe field. The first space tourist went into orbit in 2001, visiting the International Space Station for eight days before returning to Earth. Dennis Tito, an American businessman, paid $20 million for the privilege.

Time Lapse Photography of Taking-off Rocket – Pexels

Seven years later, gaming titan Richard Garriott shelled out a cool $30 million to live in space for 12 days. Both Tito and Garriott traveled via the Virginia-based company Space Adventures. It remains the only company to have sent paying passengers into space, in partnership with the Russian Space Agency.

But fast-forward to 2019, and space tourism is becoming much more affordable in comparison to those initial voyages. Virgin Galactic, the brainchild of billionaire Richard Branson, is selling tickets to space for $250,000. As of now, it’s unclear how long those fare-paying passengers will be in orbit, and launch dates have not been set. In October 2018, however, Branson announced that Virgin Galactic is “more than tantalizingly close” to its first trip to space.

Branson’s biggest competition in the space tourism race is Elon Musk’s SpaceX, a company with lofty goals. SpaceX is currently building a prototype of its Big Falcon Rocket, a massive spacecraft that may eventually bring humans to Mars.

While it isn’t clear exactly when space tourism will be available on a large scale, the concept is already changing the aviation industry. With the possibility of space tourism comes the need for more professional pilots and the use of innovative technologies in order to train those pilots, including augmented reality.

The Growing Need for Pilots

One roadbump that space tourism companies will have to overcome into the future is finding trained pilots in an dwindling landscape. According the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the number of pilots has decreased 30 percent over the last 30 years, and the situation doesn’t seem to be improving.

The pilot shortage affects commercial airlines and space tourism companies alike. J.A. Air Center, home to a world-class career pilot program, reports that there a number of reasons for the shortage. About half of the pilots flying today are baby boomers nearing the mandated retirement age of 65.

In addition, fewer military pilots are joining the ranks of commercial pilots once their term of enlistment is over. In the past, about two-thirds of pilots were ex-military, a number that has decreased by half over the course of four decades. Both the Navy and Air Force expect the downward trend to continue.

Space Aviation and Safety

Safety concerns may also be a reason for potential pilots to seek other career paths, especially where space tourism is concerned. In October 2014, Virgin Galactic‘s VSS Enterprise crashed in the California desert after being released from the White Knight 2 craft that carried the ship to a high altitude. The co-pilot was killed and the pilot severely injured in the crash of the company’s first SpaceShipTwo model.

While Virgin Galactic has since redesigned its SpaceShipTwo and corrected the error that led to the crash of the Enterprise, further testing is needed to determine if the company’s new ship, the VSS Unity, is safe enough for space flight. The good news for pilots and future space tourists alike is that Unity reached the mesosphere in July 2018 and safely landed back at the Mojave Air & Space Port.

Space tourism notwithstanding, flying continues to top the list of the safest means of travel. Flying has fewer fatalities per miles traveled than any other travel method, although airline passengers can be injured in a number of ways, from falling during the flight or while deplaning to being hit with luggage improperly stored in overhead compartments. Space tourism, however, comes with its own set of safety challenges, many of which can be overcome with modern technology.

The Future of Augmented Reality and Automation

The flight industry has come a long way in recent years thanks to AI, which is improving everything from the in-flight experience to safety. Pilots are seeing numerous changes to the way they navigate, control, and land aircraft due to widespread AI implementation in the cockpit, and NASA has taken note. Future Mars rovers will be outfitted with high-tech AI to help those on the ground better interact with the probe. AI’s future role in the human spaceflight program is one in which humans handle the major tasks and “the machines operate autonomously and give the humans a high-level summary,” writes Alison Behr for Ars Technica.

Automation and its cousin augmented reality (AR) are also helping to change the way pilots interact with their aircraft, starting at the training level. At its most basic level, AR superimposes information, including sounds, images, and text, onto real-world images. The implications of AR are wide-reaching and multi-faceted.

The military and healthcare industries are already developing powerful AR training simulators, Maryville University reports. And the commercial and space flight industries may not be far behind. AR could allow for intensive training simulations without pilots even being in the air, improving safety and avoiding potential damage to costly equipment.

The potential for widespread space tourism opportunities in the near future is an exciting prospect, and innovative companies are on the brink of making the dream a reality. Modern technology, including AI and AR, holds the key to successful space flights. Machines and humans need to work in tandem to help keep aircraft functioning properly, ensuring a safe flight for everyone involved, and attracting more candidates who hope to pilot a craft into space one day.

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