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Commercial Space Travel: Possibility Or Mirage?

Olawale Ameen Olawale Ameen
15th July 2021
Commercial Space Travel: Possibility Or Mirage?

Note: The views and opinions expressed in blog/editorial posts are those of the author. They do not reflect the views or opinions of Misbar.

On July 11th, business magnate Richard Branson along with three other civilians and two pilots successfully embarked on low earth orbit space travel on Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship VSS Unity. According to Branson, his goal for Virgin Galactic is ‘’to turn the dream of space travel into a reality - for my grandchildren, for your grandchildren, for everyone.’’

The historic trip, which lasted about an hour, afforded Brandson and his crew the opportunity to experience about four minutes of weightlessness before heading back into earth’s atmosphere and gliding onto the runway in New Mexico. The group was the first commercial crew to go to space, with Branson beating Jeff Bezos to the spot by nine days. 

With newfound expertise and discoveries, there are talks of efforts to make space habitable for humans in the near future. According to a Bloomberg report, NASA and China both have plans to send astronauts to Mars, and the UAE is promoting a 100-year plan to create a colony on the planet.

Will humanity ever get to such a time when traveling to space becomes a routine and commercial venture? According to a recent New York Times article titled The Rich Are Planning To Leave This Planet, plans are in top gear by a number of space companies such as Axiom. For just $55 million per trip, Axiom envisions that the rich will soon indulge their fantasies while sipping cocktails in retro-futuristic plush cabins the size of phone booths, looking down on planet earth.

Axiom’s designer, Phillippe Starck, told the New York Times, “My vision is to create a comfortable, friendly egg, where walls are so soft and in harmony with the movements of the human body in zero gravity.” He describes the intended effect as “the first approach to infinity.’’

But many remain unconvinced, for good reasons. Journalist and SciFi writer Sim Kern, whose spouse is a NASA flight controller, feels such an idea is dead on arrival. In a viral tweet thread, they opined, “If any of you are under the impression that our billionaires might succeed in ‘escaping’ to space, while the world burns, let me put those fears to rest with what I know.”

They explained, ‘’For a half-dozen people to exist on the ISS, it takes a ground team of thousands of people, constantly problem-solving how to keep them alive. Their quality of life is bouncing around in a narrow tube with the same 5 people who can't really bathe for months.’’

Information on NASA's faq page elaborates on this explanation. There is no shower, so astronauts have to make do with sponge baths until they return home, and their waste is compressed and stored onboard. Weightlessness is something they would have to adjust to as it complicates every aspect of life from eating to sleeping. Space adaptation also impacts heavily on the human body as it has both short and long-term effects that can cause health challenges. 

Research conducted on Scott Kelly, who is known to have had the longest human stay in space shows that lengthy space travel stresses the human body in many ways. Living in space can alter genes and send the immune system into overdrive. It can also dull a person’s mental reasoning and memory.

In his memoir ‘’Endurance,’’ Kelly described how he spent a good portion of his adult life preparing to be an astronaut, but he still found it physically and psychologically grueling to be in space for just one year. "During my time in orbit, I lost bone mass, my muscles atrophied, and my blood redistributed itself in my body, which strained my heart," he wrote. "Every day, I was exposed to ten times the radiation of a person on Earth, which will increase my risk of fatal cancer for the rest of my life."

Astronauts also follow a strict regimen while living above the earth, as they have to maintain both their own bodies and equipment. In space, the heart has to work extra hard against the force of gravity to maintain blood flow to all parts of the body. In order to achieve this, astronauts must exercise every day to keep their bodies functional. 

The odds against mankind creating an ideal ecosystem in space are certainly stacked high. Even Elon Musk agrees with this as he acknowledges the uncertainty in knowing just how long it will take mankind. ‘’Perhaps a long time, perhaps not’’ he tweeted.  

According to Kern, there’s no possibility of a future in which Bezos and Branson will be sipping champagne next to their space-pool on Low-Earth. They say it's also not possible that life could be remotely comfortable or preferable to life on earth in their lifetimes or for many generations to come.

Well-known astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson agrees with Kern. In his 2006 essay, “Delusions of Space Enthusiasts,” he writes that it is delusional for anyone to think space exploration really holds much potential for the human race. For him, the major drivers to power such long-term, resource-intensive projects such as space travel are currently missing. “Big, expensive activities are inherently long term, and require a sustained investment that must survive economic fluctuations and changes in the political winds,” he says.

But should we completely dismiss this possibility? Probably not. History is replete with examples of mankind conquering what was once thought to be impossible to usher in a new frontier of possibilities in our existence.

For Isaac Authur, a science YouTuber, he says the day will come when we will shoot our first science-fiction film in orbit. Emily Calandrelli, host of Xploration Outer Space told Interview Magazine, “In the next 100 years, we’ll have a permanent moon presence, with companies mining lunar water to develop rocket fuel and creating the first gas stations in space. Hotels and amusement parks will exist for the most lavish vacations of the rich and famous and museums will be built around iconic Apollo landing sites where these visitors can witness historic lunar landmarks with their own eyes!” 

Kern and others are probably right that this possibility may not happen in the lifetime of these billionaires. But for generations coming on board, this may soon be their own reality. Life is dynamic and it remains to be seen in years to come how this will really play out for humanity.