Apr 1, 2016
Fifty-five years ago, on April 12, 1961, at 9:07 a.m. (Moscow time), the "Vostok 1" spacecraft with a human onboard blasted off from the Soviets' launch site "Baikonur" ushering in the Race Space. The Soviet Union and the United States (EUA) vigorously competed to push the boundaries of mankind's exploration of space. The Russians scored a victory when they launched a small craft carrying cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin to new heights. His 108-minute flight gave him a permanent place in the History books as the first man in Space.
Today, more than half a century after the "Vostok 1" launch, the Space Race is over and NASA is facing economically troubled times. Space advocates are having a hard time convincing lawmakers and taxpayers that space is worth the expense. The 30-year space shuttle program is finished, and NASA currently is outsourcing transportation of its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) to the private sector. This fact takes away space monopoly from governmental organizations and opens up completely new industry: the Space Tourism.
First commercial space flights
The first privately funded human spaceflight was made over than a decade ago on June 21, 2004. SpaceShipOne and pilot Mike Melvill blasted just past the Earth's atmosphere into space, marking the beginning of commercial spaceflight. The project successfully became the first privately-financed human spaceflight, and after its success it seemed that commercial space travel was just around the corner. However, after just a couple more flights later in 2004, the SpaceShipOne was retired. There hasn't been another commercial, suborbital human spaceflight since.
That failure, certainly, isn't for lack of trying. Virgin Group founder, Richard Branson's quest to open Space travel to all, has seen hundreds of millions of dollars sunk into the SpaceShipTwo project, a space vessel that builds off its predecessor. If all had gone to plan, rich, pioneering tourists would have already flown to space aboard the ship, but the project has faced myriad delays.
Virgin Spaceship Unity
Finally, just few weeks ago, on February 19, 2016, Virgin Galactic unveiled its newly completed SpaceShipTwo. The rollout ceremony was attended by Sir Richard Branson and his family, Virgin Galactic's Future Astronauts, and partners. Professor Stephen Hawking named the new vehicle Virgin Spaceship (VSS) Unity, via a recorded speech and said, "I would be very proud to fly on this spaceship."
The new vehicle's build process kicked off in 2012 with each component part undergoing rigorous testing before assembly. With VSS Unity now fully manufactured and unveiled, the company will undertake integrated systems verification, followed by ground and flight tests in Mojave, CA and ground and air exercises at its future home in Spaceport America, New Mexico. The company has already started work on the next SpaceShipTwo.
SpaceShipTwo is designed to take a crew of two pilots and up to six passengers to space. Virgin Galactic's space flight experience features an air launch followed by a rocket-powered ascent at three and a half times the speed of sound, the silence of Space, several minutes of out-of-seat weightlessness and multiple windowed views of our home Planet.
According to Sir Richard Branson, "together, we can make space accessible in a way that has only been dreamt of before now, and by doing so can bring positive change to life on Earth. Our beautiful new spaceship, VSS Unity, is the embodiment of that goal and will provide us with an unprecedented body of experience which will in turn lay the foundations for Virgin Galactic's future. Her creation is also great testament to what can be achieved when true teamwork, great skill and deep pride are combined with a common purpose."
Virgin Galactic hopes to begin flights still during 2016, while competitors like XCOR and Blue Origin are continuing testing. While the delays were certainly disappointing for some, the difficulties over the past ten years are testament to just how impressive Space Ship achievements are.