Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two Carries NASA-Supported Payload

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NASA 09 July, 2021 - 04:50pm 23 views

Is Branson going to space?

On Sunday, Branson plans to launch on Virgin Galactic's fourth spaceflight test to date. He founded the company 17 years ago, with it now attempting to finish development testing this year so it can begin flying space tourism passengers in early 2022. CNBCBillionaires fight over what is actual outer space as Branson gets set to launch before Bezos

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Branson, Bezos space flights are ‘heralding a new era of commercial space’: Fmr. NASA Astronaut

Yahoo Finance 09 July, 2021 - 02:24pm

ADAM SHAPIRO: So the world will watch Sunday when Sir Richard Branson is planning to launch himself and several other people aboard one of his Virgin Galactic spaceplanes into sub-orbit. I believe the actual suborbital portion of the flight is all of 20 seconds. But it's still really cool, right?

But our next guest is someone who can say been there, done that, three space shuttle missions, spent several months aboard the International Space Station. But to help us understand what's going on in this new space race, we invite into the stream Leroy Chiao. He's a former NASA astronaut and ISS commander. It's good to have you here, sir.

And first, this is historic, the fact that space tourism is now here. What are you taking away from what's supposed to happen on Sunday?

LEROY CHIAO: Well, this is a big deal because the promise of suborbital flight was supposed to come a lot earlier. And of course, we have seen several people pay a lot more money to go into orbit for around a week or so. But this is a big deal because Richard Branson and, a few days later, Jeff Bezos plan to take their spacecraft, ride in their spacecraft and go up into suborbital flight.

What that means is it'll touch space. These spacecraft will touch space. They won't go into Earth orbit. But they'll touch space for just a few minutes and then come back down and return to the Earth. And so this is heralding a new era of commercial space. So very excited to see this happen.

ADAM SHAPIRO: I got to ask you-- I'm going to geek out here because you went past sub-orbit. You were aboard the International Space Station for several months, the three shuttle missions. What's it like? And is there a difference between when you're in orbit versus sub-orbit, the experience a passenger has?

LEROY CHIAO: Oh, absolutely. If you're suborbital, I mean, you're only going to be in zero gravity for just maybe a few minutes. So basically, you're in a parabolic arc. You're going to go flying up. You're going to come over and be weightless, see the curvature of the Earth, see the beauty of the Earth, and look out into the universe. And then you're going to be coming back down into the atmosphere.

The difference, of course, if you get into orbit, you're going to be going 17,500 miles an hour to orbit the Earth. On the other hand, these suborbital flights, they'll probably get up to around Mach 3 or so, so somewhere around 2,000 miles an hour instead of getting up to that 17,500 that you need to sustain orbit.

Once you're in orbit aboard the International Space Station, my longest mission was 6 and 1/2 months, very different experience than just a few minutes.

ADAM SHAPIRO: You touched upon something that is a bit macabre but I've been dying to ask. Is there any chance, whether it's the Virgin Galactic spaceplane or the Blue Origin capsule, that they could go too far and, oops, we broke out, we're in orbit, now we can't get back?

LEROY CHIAO: Well, they wouldn't get into orbit because you've got to get that orbital speed of 17,500 miles an hour. Those spacecraft are not designed to do that. They don't have the fuel to do it. So there's no way they could accidentally get into orbit.

Of course, there are plenty of other things that could go wrong. But both of those spacecraft have been through numerous test flights. And so it shows a lot that the founders, these two individuals, are actually going to go fly on these spacecraft. That should give people a lot of confidence that the test program was very rigorous.

ADAM SHAPIRO: I don't remember the year. But it was at least 10, maybe more years ago. I had the privilege of covering the last shuttle launch because President Obama had put into place, I guess, time to privatize the space program. We hear about the Chinese making great strides. They've got something that landed on the moon. They've got something that's landed on Mars. Yet they're so 20th century. It's a government program, where now we have a private sector. You look at SpaceX going to the ISS.

Is this cat out of the bag, here comes you and I one day might be able to buy a ticket to go into sub-orbit and then, I'm hoping one day, into orbit?

LEROY CHIAO: Sure. It's going to take a technological breakthrough to really bring the price of a very reliable, robust propulsion system down because rocket engines are expensive. And that's really kind of the driving force, these rockets, these spacecraft. It takes a lot to get them to be very reliable, a lot of moving parts. And so that's why you see the price come down from, say, around $70 million for a one-week orbital flight with the Russians aboard the ISS down to about $250,000 for a few minute flight into space aboard Virgin Galactic or Jeff Bezos' New Shepherd spacecraft.

But it's still out of reach for most people, right? Would you rather buy a house, or would you rather go on this several minute experience into space? Most people don't have that kind of disposable income. So we're not there yet, but we're going in the right direction.

ADAM SHAPIRO: And what's the coolest thing? I mean, forgive me for again geeking out. What's the coolest thing for you? Because as I said in the introduction, been there, done that for you. You did it more than-- you did it three or four times you were in orbit.

LEROY CHIAO: Well, that's true. I've been in low Earth orbit for a cumulative total of about almost 230 days. My longest flight was 6 and 1/2 months as the commander of the International Space Station. So frankly, I'm not interested in a suborbital flight. That's a few minutes of something I've already spent almost a year experiencing.

So for me, the big deal would be to get a chance to go to the moon or to go to Mars. But it's very exciting that the commercial side is starting to break out. We're going to get more people into space, not the, quote, unquote, normal people who can afford this kind of ticket price, even though it's much lower than an orbital flight. But it's exciting to see the beginning.

ADAM SHAPIRO: We all have a quarter million dollars lying around and give the Russians to take us up. Hey, real quick, you think we're going to get to Mars in our lifetime?

LEROY CHIAO: You know what? I think we will. And it's not necessarily, I hate to say, because of a NASA program. I like to say we've been 20 years from Mars since 1969. When we landed Apollo 11 on the moon, everybody was certain that within 20 years we'd be on Mars, and of course, we haven't even gotten back to the moon.

But SpaceX, Elon Musk has publicly said many, many times, he started SpaceX because he wants to colonize Mars. He himself wants to live on Mars. They're building prototypes, the Starship now. And they're testing them. And you know what? They're going to get there.

ADAM SHAPIRO: I got to tell you, the time it takes to get from Earth to Mars is probably about the same amount of time it takes to get down 2nd Avenue and then cross over one of the bridges into Brooklyn in New York City. Great having you here. Thank you so much for joining us.

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