How you can be an astronaut (seriously!)

On September 5th, 2013, the second test flight of the world’s first private space-plane went off without a hitch.  Starting in 2014, ticket holders will fly into space. Ladies and gentlemen, this is it: Commercial spaceflight has arrived.

I’m sure many think selling spaceliner tickets is too dangerous, risky and expensive to work.  I couldn’t disagree more:

That sentiment reminds me of the critics of powered flight over 110 years ago. Many doubted that flying was possible, or even worth doing at all.

Milton Wright, towards the end of the 19th century, had this to say:

If man were meant to fly, God would have given him wings.

Orville & Wilbur Wright make history

Orville & Wilbur Wright make history

Mankind may not have wings, but we do have brains. Just one decade after his fateful declaration, Wright’s sons Orville and Wilbur would use the intellect God gave them instead to create their own wings (image right). In so doing, they ushered in a technological age that no one, including their own father, saw coming.

This is why innovation is so important. People tend to want a better version of what they can already see – not something completely different altogether.

Remember these?

Remember these?

Let’s take the iPhone, for example: Before June 2007, people weren’t walking around saying that they wanted a movement-sensing touch screen phone with integrated music, calendar, and messaging apps.

This was a huge departure from the cell phones en vogue at the time (image left), but once the iPhone hit the market, everything changed.

Virgin Galactic is doing the same with space travel. The craft, dubbed SpaceShipTwo, is unique in the way it gets to space.  As opposed to using extra rocket fuel to get off the ground, its instead strapped onto a mother ship, hitches a ride to 50,000 feet, then flies into space under its own power.  Because it doesn’t need a launch pad, it can take off from any airport big enough for the plane (Yes, one ticket from ATL to the moon, please).

Its a proven concept: they did the same with SpaceShipOne, the innovative craft that flew twice  in 5 days to over 62 miles above the earth’s surface to claim the $10 Million X-Prize in 2004.

And here we are again: one short decade after that success, the company is set to write themselves into the history books again with over 600 tickets sold for flights into space from a shiny new Spaceport in New Mexico.

That’s American innovation for you.  My country, ‘tis of thee, indeed.

Related: Watch a rocket take off, hover, and land vertically

Richard Branson isn’t the only Billionaire making a play to carve out a market for US-based commercial spaceflight. Elon Musk (Paypal, Tesla motors), has been a busy boy as well.

His company, Space-X, is innovating commercial spaceflight in a different sector, having secured a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to resupply the International Space Station. They are developing a heavy-lift rocket that can launch 52 tons into orbit (more than twice the capacity of the space shuttle), and even a rocket that can change its mind, fly sideways, and return to the launch pad (seriously, see below).

Pretty cool, huh?

I know: I’m waxing geeky here, and I really don’t care. I’m excited, and you should be too.

Space Shuttle

Space Shuttle

Tickets are $250,000.  That sounds steep, but bear with me: since retiring the Space Shuttle (image right), we now pay Russia $70 million a trip to ferry US Astronauts to the International Space Station.

For that price, you could take 350 rides on SpaceShipTwo.  What’s more: the space vacations people took before now set them back $20 to $35 million.  $250k is a whole lot cheaper than that.

Yes, currently these seats are only for the rich, but I’m still excited because the economies of scale mean this will become cheaper over time.  Just like owning a car or buying a plane ticket, the cost of flying into space, though prohibitively high at first, will go down.

So start saving today, and don’t give up on that childhood dream of yours:

You can still be an astronaut yet.

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