Last week was an unfortunate one for space travel. Two crashes took place, one of which was a failed Orbital Sciences contract mission, and the other a Virgin Galactic spacecraft, which crashed shortly after lift-off, killing one of its test pilots. Tragic, and disheartening to space enthusiasts everywhere, these incidents resurrected the long-standing debate about whether the money spent on space projects, especially commercial ones such as Richard Branson’s brainchild Virgin Galactic, is justified when inequality and disparities are still rife in the world.
There is no doubt that the prospect of commercial space travel is exciting, and that it is presenting the world with an opportunity to uncover much of the mystery underpinning extra-orbital exploration. However, with prices starting at £150,000 for a trip into space, surely these vast sums should be put towards healing our crisis-stricken planet, before exploring any others? Branson is standing by his decision to venture further into the commercialization of space travel, speaking of its imminent accessibility to “millions” who want to see their dreams come true. However, these exorbitant prices mean that Virgin Galactic is hardly available to the masses, and space travel remains fundamentally exclusive. In an unintentionally ironic statement, CNN said “For decades, none but a few privileged – and highly trained – individuals could dare dream of travelling beyond Earth’s orbit. All that’s set to change as Richard Branson brings space exploration to the (mega-rich) masses.” Should governments and private investors alike be contributing over half a billion dollars to this sort of project when almost a billion people are severely undernourished and living in slums? Whilst there has been a strong demand for tickets, and many celebrities have been jumping on the cosmic bandwagon, a handful of the rich and famous showing interest does not justify the decision to continue with this project, especially on the pretext that it is providing opportunities ‘for the masses’. To add insult to injury, amongst the approximate seven-hundred millionaires on the Virgin Galactic waiting list, many have strong ties with humanitarian causes, including Angelina Jolie, who recently became an honorary dame for her contributions towards UNICEF and against sexual violence. To put it into perspective, here are but a few alternative avenues through which the half a billion already spent could be channeled: the USA could increase its Ebola research spending by 120 per cent, or lifetime AIDS treatment for 2,000 people could be provided.
Understandably, this breakthrough concept is exciting, especially as it comes a mere five decades after the first moon landing, and it has ignited many adults’ inner children as a result. A more morbid suggestion, put forward by Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle, is that the once-in-a-lifetime trip could also prove very popular amongst people with terminal illnesses.
Whilst the recent flurry of news coverage of Branson’s project has got many excited, it seems many may have jumped the gun. This is not a commercial venture which can provide opportunities for the widest range of people, despite the pretext. Moreover, with last week’s setback, this means that Branson and his team are still yet to actually accomplish the necessary altitude of 300 km, suggesting that it may be back to the drawing-board for some time.
Ultimately, what was once a domain reserved for scientific research has become a vanity project, not only ushering in the consumerist plague to extra-terrestrial levels, but, worse still, depriving those in need of urgent funds.