There have been two major developments in the field of private space travel in 2013.
The pace of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic program is outstripping that of NASA’s own manned flights to the stars (at least until the 2030s) and, secondly, a plan is in place to transport a group of volunteers to the Red Planet in 2023, as part of the much-publicised Mars One project.
While both of these campaigns will prove beneficial in some way or another for human space colonisation – if only by serving as a warning to future space-farers – it is nevertheless worth worrying about the people we have allowed to become humanity’s ambassadors in outer space; namely, celebrities and businessmen.
>>above: SpaceShip Two, Virgin Galactic’s flagship, completes its first powered flight. © Virgin Galactic 2013.
Here’s a list of the people we are sending into space in the next decade via the Virgin Galactic program: Justin Bieber, Paris Hilton, Ashton Kutcher, Russell Brand, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, and Katy “I’m so into extraterrestrial stuff” Perry.
I’ve deliberately chosen celebrities to highlight the kind of wealth required for a trip on SpaceShip Two (Virgin Galactic flights cost US$250,000 (£161,200) a head). However, the guest list for Virgin Galactic is an exclusive domain even without the likes of Brangelina. Among the 500+ people registered are a British princess, a real estate magnate, several CEOs, two formula one drivers, a film director, and a professional poker player.
There are also four prominent scientists and astronomers, in Stephen Hawking, planetary scientist, Dan Durda, Aussie space writer, Dr Alan Finkel, and pop star-turned-cosmonaut, Lance Bass.
- Battlestar Hilton
Now, regardless of the participants, a $250,000 joyride seems harmless enough – at the absolute worst, some of them might not come back. However, the only logical path of progression for Virgin Galactic is to up-scale its efforts to include travel to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
With NASA concentrating its efforts on telescopes, rovers, and supplying the International Space Station (there hasn’t been a manned mission to a moon or planet in 50 years), Virgin Galactic and its hyper-rich customers could become the new face of humanity in space, our Captain Kirk, Commander Shepard, and Bill Adama.
>>above: like this. © Electronic Arts/Bioware.
With campaigns like Virgin Galactic gaining prominence, and attracting legions of famous people, it may become increasingly difficult for the traditional space agencies, such as NASA and the European Space Agency, to generate interest in their own campaigns in the future.
Stephan Hawking’s insistence – in February – that he wants to “encourage public interest in space” via his low-orbit space voyage is admirable but, as a character with little to no public appeal or visibility (at least when compared to Brad and Angie) his position as educator to a new generation is awkward at best.
After all, it’s not Prof. Hawking that the kids are swooning over on Facebook; it’s arguable whether any of them actually know who the physicist is. Many Twitter users were completely unaware who Neil Armstrong was at the time of his death last year. For those same people, Justin Bieber is now the single most prominent ‘astronaut’ of the modern era.
Granted, we could argue that as somebody with a tenuous connection to astronomy, albeit via a commercial carrier like Virgin Galactic, the likes of Bieber and Paris Hilton could prove a boon for the field, by encouraging their fans to get involved.
However, the arrogance and egotism of modern celebrities stands at odds with the purpose of NASA’s manned missions, that of serving mankind as a whole. The plaque placed on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission is attributed to the efforts of humanity – not to the three men who hauled it there. Few would argue that Katy Perry is heading to space not for her own titillation, but to improve the sale of telescopes.
NASA must keep pace with the private companies over the next two or three decades, if only to prevent celebrities superseding the traditional role of astronauts, scientists, and writers in the minds of a young public. Chris Hadfield and the Mars rover, Curiosity, have already proven that traditional heroes are still relevant in the field of space travel; the difficult task ahead is to create new ones.