The great planetary astronomer Johannes Kepler predicted that "When ships to sail the void between the stars have been built, there will step forth men to sail these ships". And, 400 years later, stepped up Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to boldly go where no billionaire has gone before – not just to sail the ships, but to build them.
On Sunday morning, a small rocket plane, VSS Unity, operated by Branson's Virgin Galactic, carried him and five others up 86 km to the edge of space and then glided back down to land. Out of the atmosphere, but not high enough or fast enough to enter orbit; it was "space" according to Nasa, but 12 km short of real space according to other begrudgers in the space business.
The world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, also has his own rocket company, and plans a similar jaunt on July 20th. “It really wasn’t a race,” Branson insisted of his own venture . “We wish Jeff the absolute best.” Who was he kidding?
Branson has a penchant for pursuits like skydiving and hot-air ballooning and presented the trip as an adventure, the realisation of a boyhood dream. It may have been that, but it was also a hardheaded business venture to prove the viability, technical and commercial, of mass tourism in space – 600 customers of Virgin Galactic have each already paid $200,000 or more for as-yet unscheduled tickets to do the same. Others have been offering trips to the international space station but at a price of over €50 million a head.
In a report in 2019 Swiss bank UBS predicted, however, that within a decade high-speed travel via outer space will represent an annual market of at least $20 billion and be competitive with long-distance airline flights, while space tourism alone will be a $3 billion market. And businesses like Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, Orion Span, SpaceX, SNC, OneWeb and Boeing are pouring enormous resources into space ventures from communications to solar energy, reusable rockets, asteroid mining and space tourism. Near-Earth asteroid mining is forecast to become a multi-trillion dollar industry.
Musk, founder of SpaceX, claims that it should shortly be possible to fly 100 passengers at a go anywhere in the world in less than an hour in reusable spacecraft for the price of a commercial airline ticket. SpaceX is involved in sending hundreds of small satellites into orbit to extend global communications coverage.
Space travel and its exploitation is the final frontier. In the words of arch-colonialist Cecil Rhodes back as 1902: "The world is nearly all parcelled out, and what there is left of it is being divided up, conquered and colonised. To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far."