(Sen) - Six astronauts look at Earth from the International Space Station, whilst several hundred future astronauts look up at the night sky and dream of the time they will look at their home planet from space.
The current Expedition 34 crew aboard the International Space Station is commanded by NASA Astronaut Kevin Ford. As the space station orbits Earth every ninety minutes, travelling at approximately 28,000 kilometres per hour, Commander Ford is accompanied by US Doctor Tom Marshburn, Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy, Evgeny Tarelkin and Roman Romanenko, and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. These astronauts are the envoys of mankind and whilst they originate from different parts of the planet, they, like everyone, originate from stardust and orbit one planet that is their home.
The space station is a shining light, one that represents what humanity can achieve with vision, political will and global science. It is a symbol of co-operation overcoming barriers, showing how nation states which are oceans apart, both physically and in terms of political and economic evolution, can combine and co-operate to build a new outlet in space. This bright light you can see flying through the night sky, reflecting both the Sun's light and the unity that can be achieved by the exploration of space.
The six explorers now in space belong to an exclusive club. Since Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space on April 12, 1961, only about 500 humans have seen Earth from space. In the coming years that number is set to increase substantially as private companies begin transporting tourists into space.
Of the few who have been into space, only a handful have flown in their capacity as private individuals rather than on government business. The first privately funded space flight was undertaken by Japanese television reporter Toyohiro Akiyama who spent 8 days aboard the Mir Space Station in December 1990. In May 1991 British Dr Helen Sharman flew on Soyuz to the Mir space station with funding support from British companies. Whilst Akiyama and Sharman were the first two private space travellers, American Denis Tito was the first to fund an orbital space flight from his own wealth with a trip organised by a US company, Space Adventures.
Since Tito’s flight on board Soyuz in April 2001 there have been several others who have became astronauts through Space Adventures. Tito was followed in April 2002 by Mark Shuttleworth, Greg Olsen in October 2005, Anousheh Ansari in September 2006, Charles Simonyi (who negotiated two flights, the first in April 2007 and the second in March 2009), Richard Garriot in October 2008 and Guy Laliberté, the founder of Cirque de Soleil, in September 2009. This year it was announced that Sarah Brightman has agreed to a stint on the space station. She will be the eighth client of Space Adventures. Her flight is not likely to take place before 2014. Whether she will be the tenth private astronaut will largely depend on the progress of sub-orbital space carriers such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace.
Artist illustration of the Virgin Galactic experience aboard SpaceShipTwo. Credit: Virgin Galactic
Over 500 wannabe astronauts have signed up to Virgin Galactic's offer of a sub-orbital trip into space. Virgin Galactic has been building on the technology developed by aviation genius Burt Rutan whose SpaceShipOne reached space twice in a two week period in 2004. That feat won Rutan the Ansari X PRIZE, and Sir Richard Branson - who had long intended to go into space - saw the opportunity to commercialise the technology. SpaceShipTwo is the result, a spacecraft that will be launched by a mothership, WhiteKnightTwo. The rocketship will detach at about 50,000 feet and engage its rocket motor, propelling the two professional astronauts and six crew to an altitude of approximately 110 kilometres, thereby crossing the 100km Kármán line conventionally accepted as the boundary of space. After a few minutes of zero gravity the six tourists will strap back into their seats and fall back to Earth where SpaceShipTwo will glide to a runway landing. The first flights are due to launch from the US whose Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) earlier this year granted Virgin Galactic a license for test flights. SpaceShipTwo recently flew with its rocket motor installed for the first time and 2013 will see its first powered test flights to space. By 2014 the first tourists, including Branson and his children, should reach space aboard Virgin Galactic's spaceship.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo during a recent test glide flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic
XCOR Aerospace is also planning to lift tourists into sub-orbital space aboard its Lynx spacecraft. XCOR is offering a more intimate experience with just two people flying - one pilot, one space tourist.
Beyond sub-orbital space, several companies are building orbital vehicles fit to carry humans into space. With funding from NASA, which plans to outsource crew transport to private companies, Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corporation are all building their crewships. Blue Origin is also developing an orbtial spacecraft, funded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Boeing is developing the Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 to be able to carry up to seven astronauts to the space station. SpaceX meanwhile is developing a crewed version of its Dragon spacecraft which achieved history in 2012 by becoming the first private spacecraft to deliver cargo to the ISS. A more space shuttle style craft is being built by Sierra Nevada Corporation. Their Dream Chaser would be launched atop an Atlas V rocket, but would land on a runway like the Shuttle. Assuming these craft go into production it is easy to imagine that they will have spare capacity for fee paying customers wishing to book a trip around Earth. What is more, the companies operating the spaceships are likely to consider space tourism a key growth market. The only option at present for an orbital space trip is aboard a Soyuz workhorse at a cost in the region of $30 to $40m. If Boeing, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada Corporation succeed in building spaceships that meet the human safety standards, and they decide to offer tourism at a rate appealing to a larger audience, the price to be paid for an orbital spaceflight is likely to be reduced materially.
Beyond an orbital trip, some private companies are offering trips around the Moon. Excalibur Almaz and Golden Spike announced this year they could offer such an experience, and Space Adventures - which already has seven successful space tourists on its client list - has one person signed up for a trip around the Moon. Two people must commit before the adventure can be planned.
Illustration of a Golden Spike space tourist on the Moon. Credit: Golden Spike
Although a year is a short time in the development of spacecraft, its seems likely that in the next few year the numbers of humans looking down on Earth from space will increase dramactically, and all will be able to look down on their home planet and see it with a different perspective for the first time. As they do, they may contemplate what is possible. Earth is a blank canvas from space, and a change in perspective can often lead to good things.
Exploring space brings many direct benefits, increasing our scientific knowledge and delivering services that benefit consumers on Earth. Beyond the tangible results there exists the intangible promise of change that could make life better for Earth's inhabitants. The reality of space changes everything - the way we govern ourselves, the way we should govern ourselves. We are one planet, but not one government. The ISS is a demonstration of the power of co-operation among many different states, and shows what can be achieved. The late Sir Patrick Moore expressed his belief to Sen that space is the one thing that could unify the planet, and the space station is the beginning of a process that must continue in the decades and centuries ahead to enable humans to become a multi-planetary species that it must become if it is ever to survive beyond the life of the Sun.
As the number of people who reach space increases in the years to come with the advent of space tourism, thousands more people will get to see Earth in a new light, a different perspective that could lead to changing the way we think. Space is for the benefit of all mankind, and the reality of space changes everything.