Virgin Galactic rolled out its new space vehicle, Unity on Feb 19. The ship is the second prototype in Virgin Galactic's plan to make space flight possible for anyone able to buy a seat. It comes on the heels of the catastrophic failure of Virgin Galactic's first space plane, Enterprise, which crashed in the desert in October 2014, killing one of its two test pilots.
The troubled company brought the press corps and its celebrity founder Sir Richard Branson to the Mojave Desert for a big space nerd party to celebrate the new ship. Even Han Solo—err, Harrison Ford—was there. There were messages from Malala and Stephen Hawking; the latter gave the ship its name.
But despite the glitz, the glam, and the Branson popping out of a car roof, the sad reality is that Virgin Galactic promised us commercial space travel by 2015 and we're still nowhere near it.
Going to space is a universal childhood dream. Find me a kid who has not thought of becoming an astronaut! That was basically Virgin Galactic’s business plan: to capitalize on childhood dreams and allow customers to spend a few minutes in weightless, sub-orbital flight while looking at Earth from space. As they say: priceless (that is, a measly $250,000 a seat).
If anyone could make that happen, it certainly was Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin billionaire and consummate pitchman.
Conceptually, the Virgin Galactic system is a very elegant solution for space launch: a rocket plane mounted under a heavy, 4-engine flying carrier. It separates from the carrier at high altitude and ascends into space from there. Using an airplane for the initial 10-15 miles of flight considerably reduces the amount of fuel needed to reach sub-orbital space. In essence, Virgin Galactic trades solid rocket boosters for jet engines, which is probably safer (as we’ve learned the hard way from the Space Shuttle).
Commercial Virgin Galactic flights were scheduled to begin in 2015. More than 700 tickets had been sold. A spanking new space port had been built on the public's dime in New Mexico. Instead, Virgin Galactic is now saying that they will start when they are ready, with no clear deadline. The problem is that, in practice, reaching space is incredibly hard.
It was not supposed to be that way, both for Virgin Galactic and for space tourism in general. We should already be there by now. Or at least that was what was thought back in the 60s and 70s, at the height of the space program. The democratization of space travel was always presented as the logical end of NASA’s efforts.
Remember that PanAm shuttle in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey? It looks so awe-inspiring not only because of the groundbreaking special effects but also, more importantly, because it seemed entirely plausible. Well, it's 2016 and all I've got is a lousy t-shirt.
People at the time believed space travel would follow the same trajectory as commercial air travel, trickling down from military applications to elite luxury to the mass consumer market.
Like civil aviation, rocketry had started with maverick engineers in their backyards—the Wright brothers and Santos Dumont for airplanes, Robert Goddard and the Caltech rocketeers for space. Then governments and their militaries got interested and poured great resources into the new machines of death. WWII was a crucial moment in the progress of both aviation and rocketry. Nazi Germany was the first to use long range rocket-propelled bombs, the dreaded V1 and V2, and to deploy jet-powered airplanes, the Messerschmitt me-262. Similarly, the US developed the first reliable high-altitude heavy bomber with a pressurized cabin so as to avoid enemy fighter aircrafts.
After the War, its terrible inventions were repurposed for civilian use in a time of peace. The Lockheed Constellation was developed as a troop transport. At the end of the War, the Air Force cancelled its order and TWA took the planes, outfitted as civilian airliners. The Constellation ushered in the golden age of civil aviation. We still live in it.
By the early 60s, new jetliners—the Boeing 707 and the sleek de Havilland Comet—displaced Lockheed's slow wartime workhorse. The Boeing 747 first flew in February 1969, a few months before Apollo's 11 Moon landing. The space program grew on that backdrop, the quick and seemingly easy democratization of air travel, a wondrous technology made accessible to all. That's why PanAm sold tickets to the Moon on the eve of the Apollo landing. Air travel and space travel were joined at the hip in popular imagination.
So what happened?
My working hypothesis is that beyond the technical challenges inherent to achieving escape velocity, there is the matter of market forces.
Contrary to trains, maritime shipping and airplanes, there are no trading possibilities in Low Earth Orbit. Space is a bit like Antarctica: no resource extraction is going on, no economy to speak of; only scientists and rich people (and the occasional military expedition) want to go there.
Granted, unlike Antarctica, there is a thriving space economy. Communication satellites are big business. But you just send them up and they stay there. Their economic value is in the services they provide to us, back down on the ground.
Modern transportation connects nodes in urban networks. Tourism would be just one use case among many for the global transportation infrastructure. But for now, there are no dense network of settlements and workers in space, and therefore, no obvious market demand for an intensive and reliable connection. What you see in 2001: A Space Odyssey is actually correct from the standpoint of sociology. In 2001's world, there is a large Moon settlement and at least one gigantic orbiting space station, with a Howard Johnson and a Hilton. There are business people hanging out in the station's sleek lobby, in business attire rather than astronaut jumpsuits.
If we had built orbital settlements or Moon bases, then one could envision a market for regularly scheduled transport. As it stands now, however, space travel for all remains a distant dream or the equivalent of an extremely expensive Disneyland ride.
The very rich can go to space Disneyworld, by the way. You can purchase a stay on the International Space Station through Space Adventures. Seven very wealthy and successful people already have (among them Dr. Anousheh Ansari, the founder of the X-Prize and Guy Laliberté, the street fire breather who built Cirque du Soleil). But it will set you back more than $20 million and you will have to train for a year in Star City near Moscow. So it's not exactly as easy or simple as hopping on a flight for the weekend.
The experience is probably the greatest you can ever have (or pay for) but the journey is the destination. All I can hope is that when and if Virgin Galactic starts launching people into space, it will get cheap enough so that I can hitch a ride and take my kid along with me.
Manu Saadia, the author of Trekonomics, hails from Paris, France. He lives in Los Angeles where he helps tech startups get off the ground. His first and only passion is the future.