The final frontier: Democratisation of space
Space, as Star Trek continues to inform us, is indeed the final frontier. Back when the show first aired (and for several seasons and versions after), the idea of space colonies, a recurring theme, was completely in the realm of science fiction. Now, it is more a question of when, rather than if, although the when is at least several decades in the future. Time doesn’t just work differently in space, it works differently when it comes to anything concerning space. On Sunday, nearly two decades after a trio of moneyed entrepreneurs (independently and separately) promised the democratisation of space, the first of them delivered it.
From the rather aptly named Truth or Consequences, a city in New Mexico, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic launched a plane carrying its VSS Unity spacecraft, which was then launched for a 15-minute flight to the edge of space. There were two pilots, Mr Branson, and three other passengers. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, this meant that for some time, space was the most crowded it has been, counting those aboard the International Space Station, and the Chinese Taikonauts in orbit in that country’s own Tianhe space station – and it will get even more so.
Sure, the Virgin spaceflight was just to the edge of space, just as those later this year by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s Space X will be, but by next year, there are expectations that commercial space tourism will be a reality, with people paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a few minutes of weightlessness and a glimpse of the blue orb from out there.
The space tourism industry is expected to be worth $3 billion by 2030, according to a 2019 UBS report, but the larger ramifications of the democratisation of space, the fact that just about anyone with the resources can take a trip to space, and the entry of the private sector into an area hitherto dominated by governments will become clear over time. 2021 may mark an important milestone in humankind’s effort to explore space, and then colonise it.