Virgin birth

Updated: Jan 29 2008, 03:44am hrs
In olden days, astronauts were fit, healthy young men with years of specialist training. Now, all that is required to show the Right Stuff seems to be a large chequebook and a reliable heartbeat. If an 88-year-old can make it through astronaut training, then surely almost anyone can.

That is good news for Virgin Galactic, one of a number of firms proposing to take people into space at a price measured in thousands, rather than millions of dollars. On January 23rd the firm unveiled the vehicles it plans to use to give the worlds moderately well-heeled pensioners (and anyone else with a couple of hundred grand to burn) the ride of their lives.

Cynics who were around at the time of the Apollo missions may be forgiven for thinking they have heard it all before. Then, everyone from Pan Am to British Rail imagined getting into space tourism. Indeed, British Rail took out a patent on a flying saucer. But British Rail then, like Americas space agency, NASA, today, was a cosseted government bureaucracy and Pan Am, although commercial, hid behind the skirts of a protectionist American government. Both are now gone from the space race. In their place is real private enterprise: Rocketplane, EADS, Space Adventures and, of course, Virgin.

Flying 110km into space on Virgins SpaceShipTwo, itself launched from a special aircraft, called White Knight Two, is both a small step and a giant leap. It is small because, like NASAs first attempts, it is a quick, sub-orbital flightand purists might argue that real spaceflight involves going into orbit. It is giant because no privately funded effort has come this far, nor seemed so likely to succeed.

For that success to be sustained, however, this project and its successors must bring down costs and open up new markets and different destinations. Some firms are already eyeing the moon, though that would require much more powerful rockets. Nearer to home, the antipodes also beckon. A system similar to Virgins could be used to launch space planes that would travel from one side of the Earth to the other in 90 minutes, delivering businessmen and high-value goods: Spacemail, when it absolutely, positively has to be there yesterday.

Rocket man

Such applications will never be cheap; they are unlikely, for example, to usher in an era when Londoners ponder at their breakfast tables the merits of dinner (or rather, given the time-shift, a second breakfast) in Sydney. But another development of the technology may indeed become ubiquitous. That would be to use it to launch small satellites.

Satellites are just packages of electronics, and the price of electronics is falling without foreseeable end. It is the launch cost ($20m a time) that restricts their use. A successor to the SpaceShip/White Knight combination could deal with that. First, the whole caboodle is more economical than using throw-away rockets. Second, rather than having to wait ages on the ground for the right launch window, an air-launcher can fly to a better location. Such changes could bring satellite ownership to cities, universities and companies. Ultimately, it may bring it within the purse of individuals. Who could resist having their own, private window on the world

It is famously difficult to predict the market for disruptive technologies, whether they be computers, muskets, jet engines or digital cameras. But cheap access to space, and to the other side of the Earth, is likely to be revolutionary. For many years the question has been why taxpayers should pay to put people into space. The point of private-sector space travel is that the world will rapidly and accurately come to a conclusion about what space is for. The invisible hand may, indeed, point upwards. Then again, it may not.

If it does, however, it may also point to a revolution of a different kind. Many people date the emergence of the environmental movement to the publication of a photograph taken from Apollo 8 of the Earth rising over the lunar horizon. When space becomes a democracyor, at least, a plutocracythe rich risk-takers who have seen the fragile Earth from above might form an influential cohort of environmental activists. Those cynics who look at SpaceShipTwo and think only of the greenhouse gases it is emitting may yet be in for a surprise.

The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008