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By Dan Carlson
Prairie Ponderings 

The Beginning of the Final Frontier


On Sunday morning, Richard Branson became the first billionaire in space when he rode Virgin Galactic Space Ship Unity to an altitude of approximately 53 miles, beating out private-sector spacefaring rivals Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. To be fair, Musk is wholly supportive of Branson and has reportedly purchased a ticket on an upcoming Virgin Galactic flight. Bezos, not to be outdone, plans a trip to space next week on a spaceship developed by his company, Blue Origin. And Bezos did graciously congratulate Branson upon his safe return Sunday.

There is a dispute as to whether Sunday’s trip actually reached space, however. Bezos’ Blue Origin contends the real boundary between space and the atmosphere is at an altitude of 62 miles, or a round 100 kilometers, nearly 10 miles higher than Branson flew, and that’s the altitude Bezos is shooting for. But the FAA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force consider the boundary between the atmosphere and space to be 50 miles, or 80 kilometers up. In any case, Branson and five others aboard VSS Unity reportedly got to experience nearly four minutes of weightlessness before the craft began its descent.

Virgin Galactic takes an innovative approach to getting people into space that involves two craft. A large mothership carries the smaller spacecraft aloft to an altitude of about 50,000 feet. Then the spacecraft portion separates and a powerful rocket engine on it ignites to propel its passengers into space. When it’s time to return, the spacecraft initiates reentry procedures and glides, much like the space shuttles used to, to land like a conventional aircraft at a spaceport. Virgin Galactic will be selling seats on the space plane for about $200,440 each, so start saving pocket change.

Blue Origin uses a more familiar way to get to space. On July 20, Bezos, his brother, and an anonymous bidder who won a seat with a $28 million bid, will enter the New Shephard (named for Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space) a pressurized and climate-controlled capsule, which looks like a .45 ACP bullet with very big windows. It seats six in what look like luxury recliners, each of which has a window next to it to afford all passengers an exceptional view. The capsule sits atop a reusable launch vehicle that returns to land vertically after boosting the capsule into orbit. The capsule itself returns using parachutes. Oh, and there’s no pilot or crew. All aspects of the flight are controlled by computer. Don’t worry – there’s an escape pod.

Blue Origin has an ambitious plan for not only space tourism, but for putting payloads into orbit and eventually returning to the moon. You can see the lunar lander on its website.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX program is the most ambitious of all private efforts thus far. From space planes cutting New York to London flight time to 29 minutes, to space tourism putting seven passengers at a time into orbit, to missions delivering cargo and personnel to space stations, building a moon base, and even colonizing Mars. Oh, and you’ve likely seen the formations of orbiting satellites that will bring high-speed internet to everyone on Earth.

All of this is very exciting. The possibilities for science and exploration beyond our planet seem endless, and tremendous achievements are just over the horizon. But to reach them we’ll need to end politicizing everything and fighting over stupid things like which bathroom to use.


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