One giant leap for Virgin Galactic

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The super rich will soon be able to swap their Hawaiian shirts and Birkenstocks for rather different attire following the opening of Spaceport America’s first ‘spaceway’ that brings the once science fiction concept of ‘space tourism’ ever closer.

Opened this week in New Mexico by Virgin chairman Richard Branson, New Mexico’s governor Bill Richardson, and a troupe of 30 future ‘space tourists’, ‘Governor Bill Richardson Spaceway’ is a 2 mile long asphalt strip and is the world’s first official spaceway at the world’s first commercial spaceport. The opening of the spaceway was announced less than two weeks after Virgin Galactic announced the first successful solo flight of its SpaceShip Two craft.

Virgin Galactic’s White Knight Two mothership will carry SpaceShip Two to 50,000 ft where SpaceShip Two will then detach and use its own rockets to propel the 6 onboard passengers 62 miles above the surface of the earth, where they will experience 5 minutes of weightlessness before gliding slowly back down to earth.

So far over 380 customers have already bought their tickets for the 3-hour ride, at a cost of over £128,000 each. Flights are planned for an early 2011 take-off.

However, a report published in Geophysical Research Letters predicted that black carbon emissions from a decade of space flights would deposit in the stratosphere and potentially alter global distributions of the ozone layer. This could eventually increase polar surface temperatures by 1°C, reduce polar sea ice by 5-15%, and see a temperature decrease of 0.4°C in the tropics and subtropics.

There has been strong financial support for the space industry so far from the US government, which funded the New Mexico spaceport at a cost of $198m to the American taxpayer. Last month also saw US congress pass the NASA Authorisation Act, providing $1.6bn in space-flight investments designed to take passengers and cargo into orbit.

Many people will find themselves torn between delight at the prospect of commercial space travel coming ‘one small step’ closer, and the environmental repercussions of the fledgling business.

Hopefully there will be efforts to curb spacecraft carbon emissions before the inevitable boom of the industry over the coming years.

The question is…will anyone manage to beat ‘that’ Foursquare badge?

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3rd year biologist at the University of Southampton. Likes science, film, and discovering new ways to make one of my housemates lose his deposit.

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