Article Source: The Engineer

As Virgin Galactic achieves new altitude and speed records, will space tourism development be of any benefit to exploration and science?

Will the development of space tourism benefit exploration and knowledge?
Yes, it’s a vital step in improving access to space
It’s more likely to benefit long-range passenger flight
No, it’ll never be more than a sideshow
None of the above
space tourism
VSS Unity achieved new altitude and speed records

Our report yesterday of Virgin Galactic’s latest test flight of SpaceShipTwo VS Unity has already attracted comments wondering whether development of the aircraft will bring any long-term benefit to space exploration. This is a hotly-contested subject, with critics of the Virgin venture stating that it is only a thrill-ride for the well-moneyed. We would like to know what Engineer readers think will be the long-term legacy of efforts to realise space tourism.

It is perhaps notable that Sir Richard Branson’s efforts in space are largely focused on paying passengers; Virgin’s satellite launching business uses the Whiteknight 2 carrier plane which takes SpaceShipTwo to its launching altitude, but not the spacecraft itself. By contrast, other commercial space ventures are more focused on other aspects: Elon Musk’s SpaceX, for example, was inspired by the entrepreneur’s interest in establishing settlements on Mars, and focuses on satellite launch and resupplying the International Space Station, with crewed flight very much on the backburner and space tourism barely mentioned; similarly, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, although it has tourism in its sights, seems in no hurry to take paying passengers while there are commercial launches in the offing.

Proponents of Virgin’s approach point out that it is doing important work in reducing the cost of getting to space, which is bound to reap payoffs: moreover, it must be pointed out that commercial flight itself began very much as a novelty for those who could afford to take joy rides and only developed into the commercial behemoth of today’s civil aviation industry after several decades (and a World War to accelerate development of large aircraft). There is also a point of view which states that technology such as SpaceShipTwo is more likely to be a forerunner of suborbital passenger aircraft to convey travellers large distances faster than current jets (the much-vaunted prospect of travelling from the US to China in a couple of hours).

For those who believe that Virgin is opening the door to advances in exploration, would be interested to know what aspect of the SpaceShipTwo project might enable such developments. As usual, we welcome discussion on the subject, but remind contributors to familiarise themselves with our guidelines for content of commentsbefore submitting. We will publish the results of this poll on 5th March.

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