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The Financial Express

Making space travel affordable  


Making space travel affordable   

Jeff Bezos, the former CEO and cofounder of the world's e-business giant, Amazon, has successfully made his suborbital space voyage. After getting separated from the reusable New Shepard Rocketship,the capsule,in which Bezos and three of his companions-his brother Mark Bezos, 82-year-old Ms Wally Funk and teenager Oliver Daemen- were seated,rose to some 100 kilometres above the Earth's surface.This is the so-called Karman Line, the edge of our 'air space' and the beginning of the 'outer space'.And from this edge of space, Bezos and his space-touring team got a stunning view of our beloved blue planet and the experience of microgravity. Then the capsule with the 4-member crew touched down in a desert in Western Texas. It was a mere 10 minutes 10 seconds' space journey.But why is this event making headlines? Is he first person to make such journey? The answer is, of course, in the negative.

In fact, space voyage is nothing new. Youths of the 1960s who were awestruck by the first man to orbit the Earth, Yuri Gagarin, on April 12 1961, are now in their 80s. It was the age of space race between the US and the then-Soviet Union. In this race, initially, the Soviets were in the lead. But later, the Americans overtook them and in 1969 their astronauts landed on the moon. In the years that followed numerous such manned space voyages tookplace with the participation of astronauts from many more nations. In the International Space Station (ISS) rotating the earth, astronauts have been staying for months, even years, doing various experiments and then returning to the Earth. Space travel has now become so common, its news so boring that people do not even care to give a second look at any news on any new rocket with astronauts blasting off into space.

Then what is special about this particular space jaunt by Jeff Bezos and company? Was it because it was the dream project of a world's top billionaire? Partly so. But most importantly, it is not a state-run space programme. It is a project owned and operated privately. The perception of a space programme being somethingtoo big and sensitive to be in private hands is now a thing of past. At the moment, more than one private company is engaged in designing space vehicles to send not highly trained astronauts, but normal people into space. Jeff Bezos' company, Blue Origin, is just another private enterprise employed in the business of turning space into a tourist attraction. It is trying to do, what some space tourism enthusiastswould like to say, 'democratising' space.In fact,by joiningthis short trip to the edge of space along with his other companions, he hasdemonstrated that space travel is not the preserve of specially trained people, but accessible to and safe for even regular people. From that perspective, it can be said that Bezos has successfully pioneered a space venture that has some commercial potential. As such, though Jeff Bezos is not the lone entrepreneur in the emerging field of commercial space travel, he has made his mark.

British billionaire Richard Branson launched his company, Virgin Galactic, with a similar objective. He first bought Spaceship One, a company that built reusable spaceship that could take three people 100 kilometres above the Earth's surface twice. Spaceship One won Ansari X prize for the feat. Then Branson founded his company, Virgin Galactic, in 2004. He tried to build   bigger rockets, SpaceshipTwo, that could carry six people in a similar flight. He also built the spaceship VSS Unity to operate commercial flights, particularly for space tourism.

Owner of SpaceX, Elon Musk, on the other hand, dreams of ultimately taking humans to Mars as settlers. For now, his aim is to reduce cost of space travel and has been building reusable rockets like Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft for the purpose. Elon Musk founded his SpaceX in 2002.He thinks if space tourism could thus be made affordable to interested people, the venture will be able to earn enough revenue to finally fund his dreamproject of building spacecrafts, Starships, that would take space migrants to Mars.

Jeff Bezos established his space travel company, Blue Origin, in 2004.  Unlike Elon Musk, his goal is to remain closer to the Earth. He is rather focusing on suborbital space travel like the one he has already completed. He, too, has dreams. He would rather like to see the heavy, polluting industries shifted to space. And with this end in view,he established his company, Blue Origin, in 2004.

Though these multibillionaire businessmen have different philosophies centring their space projects, their objective is the same. Making the travel within the reach regular people. 

But sofar such space tourism has remained forbiddingly expensive. Only the superrich can afford it. Consider the first such space tourism venture undertaken by Dennis Tito, a very rich businessperson in 2001. He paid an astronomical sum of US$20 million for a trip to the ISSaboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Even the Jeff Bezos' trip to the edge of space and back cost US$2.54 million per minute.

That is why companies like Blue Origin, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic are planning short, suborbital space trips. No wonder that only the very rich will be able to afford the first such commercial trips. But entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos believe the cost of space trip will ultimately come down within the reach of commonpeople.

 

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