Virgin Galactic – Richard Branson’s space company – has released the design of its next generation craft: SpaceShipTwo. The machine will carry passengers into the upper atmosphere after being carried to an altitude of about 15km by a larger mothership. After spending time at 110km of altitude, the vehicle will re-enter the atmosphere. While the technology is new and doubtless interesting, there is good reason to ask whether it serves any valuable purpose.
The three aims commonly described for the technology are delivering extremely urgent packages, launching small satellites, and entertaining rich people. While it can certainly be argued that manned spaceflight has not generally been a valuable undertaking, this sort of rollercoaster ride does seem like an especially trivial use of technology. For about $200,000, you get a few minutes in microgravity, the view out the windows, and bragging rights thereafter. Satellite launching could be a lot more useful, though the Virgin group has yet to demonstrate the capability of their vehicles to do so – a situation that applies equally to the idea of making 90 minute deliveries anywhere in the world.
The Economist provides an especially laughable justification for the whole undertaking, arguing:
When space becomes a democracy—or, at least, a plutocracy—the rich risk-takers who have seen the fragile Earth from above might form an influential cohort of environmental activists. Those cynics who look at SpaceShipTwo and think only of the greenhouse gases it is emitting may yet be in for a surprise.
Hopefully, they won’t become ‘environmental activists’ of the Richard Branson variety: investing in airplanes and gratuitous spacecraft while hoping someone will develop a machine that will somehow address the emissions generated.