How big is your rocket? Today’s space race is obscene

Rather than dreaming of the unknown on planets devoid of life, it seems more laudable to be focussing your dreams on the dreams of known people in a known planet full of life

Andy Parsons@MrAndyParsons
Thursday 15 July 2021 15:53
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British billionaire Richard Branson says space is 'experience of a lifetime' aboard Virgin Galactic vessel

My dream when I was about six was to be a late-night, long-distance lorry driver. It wasn’t so much that I liked the idea of lorries or driving, but that I had seen the Yorkie adverts and I liked the idea of chocolate. Often after a gig, I’ll drive home and treat myself to a bar of chocolate. In many ways, I’m living the dream.

Richard Branson’s dream was a little grander than mine. His dream was to go up into space – a dream he achieved earlier this week when he went up on a Virgin Galactic demo flight. Branson was scheduled to go up on a later test flight but Jeff Bezos is due to be living his dream next week by going into space in his Blue Origin rocket, and Richard Branson wanted to get there first.

Judging from the video footage, Richard Branson didn’t seem to be enjoying his dream as much as he might have imagined. If his facial expression was anything to go by he seemed to be spending most of the 15-minute trip trying to stop himself vomiting. His most enthusiastic reaction was when the spacecraft touched down at the end, at which point Branson started clapping furiously, presumably delighted that he had made it back down to the ground. Given the number of catastrophes Virgin Galactic have experienced since 2004, it was an entirely understandable reaction.

Before the flight, Virgin Galactic had shown Richard Branson arriving by bike. Because it’s obviously important to show off your green credentials when you’re about to go up in a solid-fuel rocket for a PR stunt. But even when he was shown cycling, he had a giant SUV on either side of his bike for no apparent reason, like some sort of cosmic David Cameron.

All this further backfired when it turned out that he had in fact turned up to the launch by car and the bicycle footage had been shot the week before. Branson said on the day of the flight that “it’s so awesome to arrive by bike” when it turned out he hadn’t. In the video, one of his fellow passengers greets him with “you’re late” – when in fact he had turned up six days early.

Given the numerous conspiracy theories surrounding space travel, there will no doubt be many people wondering what else had been faked. Perhaps he had indeed vomited but they had managed to fake it that he hadn’t. Something he was unable to fake was getting his audio feed to work, which cut out for large parts of the flight – although given when he returned to Earth he said, “What a day. What a day. What a day. What a day”, one suspects we weren’t missing too much.

He also said that having seen Earth from space, he was now going to be devoting the rest of his life to saving the planet. Given that he’s 70 and has owned an airline for almost 40 years, he seems disappointingly late to the project. It’s certainly possible to want to save the planet without having seen Earth from space, and you’d hope for most people that this is indeed the case, given the select few who may ever have the privilege. For the rest of us, the fact that Earth is where we live, and is the only known planet to support life, is hopefully sufficient reason.

There is some controversy over whether Richard Branson did indeed see Earth from space because according to most definitions he didn’t even make it into space at all. The often accepted boundary where space starts is the Karman line which is 62 miles above Earth – but Branson’s flight was seven miles short of this. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin team were keen to point out that their rocket next week would be going over the Karman line.

However, Nasa considers the formal boundary to be higher, at 76 miles. There’s something rather obscene about multi-billionaires bickering about which of their spacecraft can go higher. Nasa will consider you “an astronaut” if you go above 50 miles, although if you want to be an “astronaut” who has never gone into “space” then, as my six-year-old self will attest, it’s much cheaper to put a goldfish bowl on your head, cover yourself in tin foil and hold your light-up world globe at arm’s length to imagine what the view might be like.

Elon Musk is the third billionaire to get into the space game. He sees himself as a visionary who wants to populate Mars. However, given that he named his child X Æ A-Xii, it is open to question quite how much of a visionary he really is.

Jeff Bezos is less interested in Mars, it seems, and more interested in the moon – specifically the area of space between Earth and the moon. Bezos allegedly wants to get Earth’s heavy industry off Earth and into space. The whole prospect of this fills me with trepidation. “There’s going to be an eclipse of the moon tonight.” ”Really?” “Yes, Amazon Industries is going to pass right in front of it.”

Richard Branson’s mission seems much more prosaic in that he just appears to want to make lots of money. His stated goal is to make space travel available to all but, given the expected price of a ticket on Virgin Galactic is $400,000 (£289,600), this seems unlikely. He said he wants to make the “dream of space travel a reality for my grandchildren and for your grandchildren”. I would say the chances are a little greater for his grandchildren. However, Branson only got three of his employees onto this flight, so his grandkids may be a little disappointed they haven’t already been invited.

For your $400,000 Virgin Galactic ticket, you will be able to see the sky turn black and experience around five minutes of weightlessness. It does seem like a lot of money since you can see the sky turning black every night from your window, and experience the feeling of weightlessness by paying £30 to go indoor skydiving. OK, so indoor skydiving isn’t true weightlessness, but then nor is Branson’s version – you are just falling at the same rate as the spacecraft. Effectively, you are skydiving in a spacecraft that is also skydiving.

By contrast to the other billionaires, Bill Gates has said he has no interest in going into space and would rather spend his money on vaccines. He says that the Gates Foundation can buy enough measles vaccines to save a life for $1,000 (£724), so anything he does is always predicated with, “Well that’s $1,000 I could spend on measles vaccines.”

The gloss of this statement is somewhat removed, however, when you learn his house, with a garage for 23 cars, is worth $130m (£94m). Even so, the Gates Foundation is among the largest charitable foundations in the world whose stated mission is to improve healthcare and reduce extreme poverty across the globe. It has put billions into fighting polio and malaria, improving sexual health and will also provide emergency funding to cover part of the shortfall from Rishi Sunak’s decision to cut the UK Aid budget from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent.

Rather than dreaming of the unknown on planets devoid of life, it seems more laudable to focus on the dreams of people on a known planet full of life. Rather than competing over whose rocket goes higher, it would be refreshing to see billionaires arguing over whose cures are more effective, and being ultra keen to be part of clinical or vaccine trials. Afterwards, they could treat themselves to an indoor skydive, or a little ride in a lorry while eating a bar of chocolate.

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