The wonder. The awe. The excitement of a child watching something he knew was historic. Branson, 70, obviously felt it too as he hung weightless in the capsule created by his company, Virgin Galactic, the first private concern to launch its CEO into space.
“To all you kids down there,” the grinning billionaire said, “I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars. Now I’m an adult in a space suit with lots of other wonderful adults looking down at our beautiful, beautiful earth. To the next generation of dreamers; if we can do this, just imagine what you can do.”
I was twelve when the Soviet Union launched astronaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit in 1961. Three weeks later, the US followed suit, sending Alan Shepard on a suborbital flight. And, just like that, the space age took off, culminating in men walking on the moon before the end of the decade.
I remember watching them from a sidewalk in Los Angeles, gasping at the images flashing on a storefront TV. I also remember the odd juxtaposition of people going about their usual business as the saga of human perceptions reinvented itself some 240,000 miles away. And I remember the shock I felt 17 years later when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded a minute after takeoff, killing all seven crew members aboard. One of them was New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, the first civilian ever launched into space.
I thought of all that as I watched Branson’s antics in zero gravity. And realized, once again, that we may be entering a new era; a time when leaving earth will be no more onerous than flying to the Philippines.
In fact, it’s already begun; Virgin Galactic, ushering in what some have called the age of space tourism, has already sold 600 reservations for future flights at prices of up to $250,000 apiece. And there are competitors: earlier this week, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, of Amazon fame, also rocketed aloft in his own privately constructed spacecraft. Both companies say they expect to start shuttling tourists towards the stars regularly sometime next year.
So what does all this mean for average people like you and me who may not be willing or able to spend both our own and several future generations’ life savings on a 15-minute thrill ride? “I’m skeptical that this is a big business opportunity,” John M. Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University and founding director of its Space Policy Institute, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s pretty much a niche market for wealthy individuals and adventure-seekers.”
Ah, but will it always be so?
To get an answer, I asked my 10-year-old son, Isaac, if he’d be willing to take the trip. “I’d go to space anytime,” he enthusiastically assured me. “I think it would be fun!”
If I had the money, I’d buy tickets for both of us right now. But, alas, I don’t and so won’t. Guess I’ll just have to wait until the price of zero gravity drops to the same level as what I paid for my upcoming flight to Cebu. And if I don’t live long enough to see that happen, well, I’m confident that Isaac will.
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David Haldane’s latest book, a short-story collection called “Jenny on the Street,” is free tomorrow only, July 22, on Amazon Kindle. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, Haldane is an award-winning author, journalist and broadcaster dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Goldstar Daily.