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To boldly go where no dilettante has gone before

Fri, 08/27/2010 - 8:03am
Alix Paultre, Editor-in-Chief

alix paultreOnce Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites announced the maiden flight of SpaceShipTwo, it was only a matter of time before Virgin Galactic would start selling tickets to space in earnest. This is great news for  the development of commercial space, representing the first private steps into a new frontier.

Some say that Virgin Galactic is only selling not-quite-space to overprivileged dilettantes. Supposedly such people chase experiences and are looking for the Next Big Thing since Everest is so last century. Supposedly suborbital flights aren't even "real" spaceflight anyway.

Those kinds of arguments lose steam when one considers that many achievements in exploration were accomplished by civilian adventurers, people who had the resources and curiousity to take steps into the frontier to discover what lay out there. From the Poles to the jungles of Africa to the farthest reaches of the sea, so-called Dilettantes pushed out and expanded humanity.

  

spaceshiptwoIn space, we have already seen the deepest-pocketed of that group fly in Russian spacecraft to orbit, and most pursued personal research projects while there. Virgin Galactic passengers will be tourists, true. But after the adventurer comes the adventurous, people with the curiousity and ability to explore the newly-opened frontier.

This adventure by Virgin Galactic is the first civilian commercialization of spaceflight, and although it promises to be a fancy flight, it should not be dismissed as a flight of fancy. America's first venture into space by Alan Shepherd was a suborbital flight, the first manned mission of Project Mercury. It is space, albeit near-Earth space. The spacecraft themselves represent cutting-edge aerospace technology and represent the forerunners of next-generation suborbital travel to space transfer stations and intercontinental destinations.

We need this first step, this first private foray into space. We must commercialize and make profitable space exploration so that more go to seek their fortunes there. We need spaceflight for many reasons, from asteroid resource recovery  to expanding humanity's footprint beyond the Earth in case of a catastrophic event. Those kinds of things take time, and most importantly, money. This venture (and the ones that are on its heels) represents the dawn of a new age in our expansion into space.

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