Space tourism sounds pretty fun, if exorbitantly expensive. The ticket to ride is far from the only pricy thing about it. Building a spaceport for launches and returns costs hundreds of millions. So why does Sir Richard Branson now want to build one in the UK, right after finishing one in America — which isn’t even sending folks to low orbit yet? The Virgin Galactic chairman is aiming to build a spaceport in the UK that will launch private citizens into low orbit for $US250,000, let them float weightlessly while admiring our fragile planet for a few minutes, then fall safely back down to terra firma. And it’s no wonder folks will have to fork over that fat price tag: Spaceport America, the 18,000-acre commercial spaceport in New Mexico and the first in the world, cost over $US200 million and sapped the state of 108 million taxpayer dollars.
But it makes some sense that renowned billionaire Branson wants to cast his net as wide as possible. Depending on how successful space tourism gets, Virgin Galactic will need at least one spaceport on each continent to attract local space tourists. It’s a smart business move: Besides Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX (which is also supposed to use Spaceport America), there are other space tourism efforts, like Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, which is taking over its own launchpad in Cape Canaveral. Other players are going to need transit hubs far and wide, and Branson needs to keep clip with his fellow quadrillionaire entrepreneur rivals who have their own final frontier ambitions.
And yet, despite being completed for nearly five years, Spaceport America hasn’t sent any space tourists up to the heavens yet. In fact, New Mexicans have thought that the whole thing was a waste of money — the facility is even being rented out to shoot car commercials to stay in the black.
Furthermore, in 2014, Virgin Galactic suffered a a tragic loss when one of its pilots died when the suborbital craft SpaceShipTwo crashed in the Mojave desert, while the other pilot was badly injured. In February, the company is scheduled announce a replacement spacecraft that will include engineering that will prevent such disasters.
Despite both financial and safety worries swirling around commercial space travel, the British government is on board with Branson’s latest building plans: The Independent says that a future Virgin Galactic spaceport in the UK is “being considered by the Government”. And whether it’s with Virgin or not, the country wants a commercial spaceport open by 2018.
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