Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has finally reached the edge of space, despite a disastrous crash suffered by the prototype four years ago. But the achievement means different things to different people. Among Americans, it is inspiring patriotism, because SpaceShipTwo has carried American pilots out there for the first time since the space shuttle programme was wound down in 2011. But for its promoter, who wept as the mission landed safely in the Mojave desert after an hour-long flight, it is the frontrunner of a new age of entrepreneurship in space.
Branson has beaten off the competition from Jeff Bezos, who is also concentrating on space tourism, and Elon Musk, who dreams of peopling Mars. By March next year, he will be among the passengers of the world’s first commercial rocket flight, and become the first space entrepreneur. He will go into business with a nice margin, since space tourists have pre-booked seats in considerable numbers. In contrast, plans to put humans on Mars are premature, since terraforming the planet — tweaking it so that it can support terrestrial life — is a project that would bankrupt even the world’s biggest economies. The exploitation of space for mining and manufacturing — which produces unusual results in zero gravity — will ultimately be a lucrative business, but at present, the capital and technological investments required are beyond belief.
But tourism will be a sweet deal from day one. In his second book, Artemis, Andy Weir suggests that if there were human habitations on the moon, the site of the Apollo 11 landing would become a tourist magnet, and crowds would fly in from earth to see Neil Armstrong’s footprint. Strangely, by playing safe, Richard Branson could be remembered as the pioneer of the space business, while his risk-taking peers are wiped out and forgotten.