A new day dawned amid snow and fanfare in Mojave Spaceport in California Monday night. The VSS Enterprise was rolled out and unveiled to the public and given its official name, ushering in the age of commercial space flight. Along with its mothership VMS Eve, itself adorned with a nod to great aircraft of the past and their crews, VSS Enterprise will be the first private vehicle to regularly deliver individuals into space simply because they choose to go.
It is easy to see this as nothing more than a toy for the rich, but as a life-long advocate of direct human experience with the new and unknown I think this will be looked back upon as one of the key steps in liberating mankind from it’s terrestrial home. More than likely the passengers of the Enterprise will include over time not just the fabulously wealthy but also the average person who wins a ticket in a fundraising event and the retired person who chooses a trip into space as a good use for that home equity saved up over the years. Sir Richard Branson’s stated goal is to see the cost of such flights drop down to where it is the equivalent of “taking the family to the Mediterranean” – a trip not outside the bounds of many people and a cost reduction not inconceivably far from the current rates.
I say bring the sky within reach of the average person and let’s see what they do with it.
The ship, like its prototype forefather, is carried aloft by its mothership and then released to rocket into low orbit somewhere past 300,000 feet above the earth. Passengers will experience at least a few minutes of weightlessness and be able to see the earth below with the perspective that has humbled every astronaut and cosmonaut before them. The universe will be presented to them without the filter of our atmosphere and they will be granted the opportunity to truly see both how majestic the world is below them and how small and fragile as well.
Perhaps in another generation the descendants of VSS Enterprise will be able to catch a ride on a rotating orbital tether and launch directly out of low orbit for rendezvous with a hotel in permanent orbit (at least one group is claiming to be building one now). Perhaps in another generation the relatively simple trip from high earth orbit to a base on the moon, one more generation and a base on Mars is not unlikely.
This all may seem very lofty for those most concerned with the immediate problems of living on this planet in the short term. However, as far as our distant descendants are concerned, these are the steps they will see us having taken that were most pivotal in setting the course they are on. As more people have greater access to space and return with more experience to share directly with more of their earth-bound neighbors the perspective a little distance provides will, I believe, work its way into the core of our human cultures. Few have returned from space without the profound realization that the exaggerated troubles of terrestrial matters are but puffs of dust on a vast desert.
There is more to opening space than simply providing a vacation destination. There is perspective.