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Despite setbacks, space tourism will take flight

It is fashionable in today’s 24/7 media cycle with intense press coverage and public interest to criticize major proposals and innovations. This is especially true of the commercial space tourism industry, and related profit-motivated space development.

The recent crash in the same week of an Orbital Science Corporation launch to resupply the International Space Station and a Virgin Galactic test flight seemingly justified criticism of space tourism efforts.

In my opinion, space tourism will begin within two years, despite these accidents. This embryonic industry is at an advanced stage of development, and I think it reasonable to expect the initiation of public space flight very soon.

Although the Oct. 28 crash of the Orbital Science Corporation Antares rocket and the accident suffered on Oct. 31 by Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip-Two were serious events, they have been exaggerated far beyond their real importance.

The Virgin Galactic accident was exactly that, purely accidental. Co-pilot Mike Alsbury inexplicably deployed the craft’s brake during takeoff, setting in motion a series of catastrophic events culminating in the crash and his death.

Similarly, the Orbital Science rocket mishap does not signify the death knell for space tourism. The Associated Press reported, “It was the first failure after an unbroken series of commercial cargo flights to the Space Station since 2012 – three by Orbital and five by Space-X.” This accident was blamed on a Russian rocket, and it should be borne in mind that Russian space technology has suffered a series of serious failures in the last several years.

Not only have some media reports exaggerated the significance of these tragic accidents, there is considerable reason to appreciate the imminence of commercial space tourism.

Scaled Composites built a factory for spaceship manufacturing in 2011.

Virgin Galactic has accepted $80 million in deposits from approximately 700 would-be space tourists, and test flights have already been rescheduled. But Virgin Galactic is by no means the only bona fide player in personal spaceflight.

The Space-X Dragon capsule can be reconfigured to carry seven passengers, in the Dragon V-2. NASA recently picked Space-X (Elon Musk’s company) and Boeing to provide resupply services to the International Space Station for $6.8 billion.

Blue Origin, the commercial space firm owned by Jeff Bezos, obtained FAA approval in 2006 for his New Shepard spacecraft, a vertical takeoff and landing craft. Blue Origin’s efforts should result in both cargo and human-rated space access, according to The Economist.

Space commerce consultant Thomas Matula believes that Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are the two likeliest purveyors of personal spaceflight.

The Orion spacecraft has already begun test flights. It plans the initial four-hour, 3,600-mile test flight for December of 2014, it was announced in mid-November of 2014.

A number of viable potential personal spaceflight providers was suggested in 2006 by respected commercial space writer Leonard David, including Space-X, Blue Origin, Scaled Composites, Armadillo Aerospace, SpaceDev, Rocketplane Global, and XCor Aerospace.

A final factor might be considered; the necessity for commercial space development.

In this era of privatized space development, it is up to the private sector to create the space infrastructure and spacecraft and obtain the operational experience to facilitate space exploration and personal spaceflight.

Space tourism will be an exciting personal experience, but perhaps a more compelling reason behind commercial space development is to provide an off-planet capacity for the human species.

Our Earth is in peril, from terrestrial and extraterrestrial dangers. Nuclear and/or biological and chemical war, global warming, environmental degradation and resource depletion are very real and near-term dangers. The carrying capacity of our planet may have already been exceeded.

And outer space also threatens the human inhabitants of the Earth. Asteroids, comets, meteors and solar flares all have the ability to end all life on our planet.

Other dangers could be cited, but perhaps my point is already clear. If the human race is to survive our planet, the commercial development of space is necessary.

Dirk C. Gibson has studied commercial space development for a decade.