Writer’s Block: Companies seeking to privatize space travel

Space has fascinated me ever since I was a kid.

Eric Hagen

Eric Hagen

When the chill of the night was not too uncomfortable, one of my favorite past times was stretching out on the soft grass in my backyard and gaze up at the stars dotting the sky.

I cannot locate a lot of constellations beyond the Big Dipper. I guess I just simply enjoyed taking in the view and clearing my mind from whatever was bothering me at the time. It was my chance to get away from it all by just walking a few steps away.

Before I chose print journalism, I considered majoring in astronomy. I got an ‘A’ in a University of Minnesota’s astronomy class. But my struggles to understand physics is why I am a reporter today and not an astronomer.

Nevertheless, my interest is always piqued when I hear about any news involving space – especially space travel.

I was born in 1980, so I have only witnessed the life and death of the space shuttle program and the emphasis on missions to the International Space Station and robot and space probe missions to the surface of Mars and into deep space. I have seen footage of man walking on the Moon and dream of the day I can watch a televised feed of that happening again, or someone walking on Mars even though my conservative side cringes when I think how much it would cost to get them there.

Although governments will continue playing a role in space travel, I firmly believe that the private sector will continue to come up with creative ideas to commercialize space travel. I’m skeptical of my ability to even afford a suborbital space flight within my lifetime, but I think it’s inevitable that space travel will become more common for the average person.

The San Jose Mercury News had an interesting article in February about Google Inc. leasing three hangars, two runways and some adjacent land and buildings from the U.S. government for the purpose of building and testing new robots, planetary rovers and other space and aviation technology, a NASA spokesperson confirmed.

One of these hangars is 200 feet tall and covers eight acres. The U.S. Navy built it to house helium airships, according to the article. Google did not share a lot of details about what its plans are.

The first space tourist who actually went into an Earth orbit was Dennis Tito, who was in space in eight days in 2001.

Seven wealthy individuals have boarded Russian Soyuz rockets as part of a private venture by MirCorp and the Russian government, who wanted to offset some of its maintenance costs of the Mir space station. However, Mir was taken out of commission by the time Tito took the first flight, but they were able to go to the International Space Station.

All paid at least $20 million for this vacation.

Some suborbital flights have been made. The first commercial astronaut was Brian Binnie, who flew SpaceShipOne 62 miles above the Earth’s surface, which is considered the initial boundary to space but not yet in orbit above the Earth.

Scaled Composites designed SpaceShipOne and has since added SpaceShipTwo. Virgin Galactic purchased it and is calling it the VSS Enterprise. It plans to charge around $200,000 per seat. Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Bronson is hoping Virgin Galatic becomes the first private space tourism company.

These trips to space would be short unless there is a place to stay beyond the International Space Station, which was built for professional astronauts to study space, not to house tourists. There are concepts of space hotels, but obviously the first step is for a private company to get one of its own vessels into orbit yet, which has yet to happen.

Either way, it’s exciting to think of the possibilities.

Eric Hagen can be reached at  eric.hagen@ecm-inc.com

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