The unravelling reality of Space Travel

Welcome back the Shepard, perfect landing, we made history today. Now, who wants to go to space?” said the commentator in the video after the second landing of the New Shephard rocket that Blue Origin has been working on to realise the dream of space travel. Wondering, what the heck this is all about?

Let’s go down memory lane. The 18th and 19th centuries were spent with various individuals experimenting on air travel. Many mistakes were made, however, their persistent efforts paid off when at the dawn of the 20th century, The Wright brothers among others were able to come up with mechanised flight.

The first commercial flight in recorded history occurred on January 1st 1914 between St. Petersburg and Tampa in the USA covering a distance of 21 miles (34 Kilometres) in 23 minutes at an altitude of 15 feet (5 metres). The amount paid then by the passenger was US$ 400 which is equivalent to almost US$ 10,000 today.

KLM the world’s first commercial airline opened it’s doors in 1919 and transported 345 passengers and 25,000 Kg of mail and cargo in its first year. This is equivalent to the load carried by a single Boeing currently. Since then, a lot of progress has been made in the aviation industry with flights today traveling non stop for over ten hours at speeds we currently consider fast.

In the middle of the 20th century, the space race begun and was largely a two horse battle between the American and Soviet Governments. The Soviets drew the first blood by sending the first man to space as well as launching the first ever satellite. Subsequently, the Americans outdid them by landing the first men onto the moon. Alot of effort has since gone into space related research with the launch of numerous satellites and probes sent to distant planets.

The entry of private players into the Space Age that had been a monopoly of state actors begun remarkably changing many things and injected a lot of much needed money as well as innovative ideas.

In 2002, the commercialisation of space travel saw Mark Shuttleworth become the first African to travel to space and spend eight days at the International Space Station. It however came at a hefty cost of Twenty Million US Dollars. Not many can afford such sums of money to achieve the dream of space travel.

One of the reasons space flight has traditionally been expensive is the need to use new rockets each time a pay load has to be taken to space. It is similar to having to purchase a new plane for each flight that is going to be made. There has always therefore been a need to come up with ways of landing rockets safely back to earth and reusing them for future missions.

On April 29th 2015, Blue Origin launched the first flight of the New Shepard rocket that flew upto 307,000 feet (Approximately 94 Km) which was just 6 Km shy of the Kármán Line at the altitude of 100Km regarded as the Edge of Space. The rocket came back to earth and made a successful upright landing much to the joy of the development team.

As if that was not enough, seven months later, on November 23rd 2015, a repeat flight was made by the same rocket that achieved a distance of 329,839 feet (100.4 Km) above the earth effectively reaching the edge of space.

On the 21st of December 2015, Space X a company whose goal is to enable people live on other planets sent the Falcon 9 rocket to space and it duly delivered eleven (11) low earth orbiting satellites after which it returned and landed safely back on earth. Similar to Blue Origin, Space X took the game further using a more powerful rocket while attempting a much harder feat. Not to be outdone, the New Shepard was sent on another trip back to sky on 22nd January 2016 confirming to many that Blue Origin means business.

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Falcon 9 rocket route plan. Picture courtesy of SpaceX

What does this all mean to humankind?

“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionise access to space.” Elon Musk, Space X founder.

At the turn of the 20th century, the pride of many was being able fly in an aeroplane and visit other continents on earth. The 21st century however has come with its own demands. Today, with a greater understanding of the solar system, galaxies and the universe, humanity is aspiring to colonise other planets and make them habitable or at worst extensions of our civilisation. Why can’t one go for holiday on mars or the moon? How about taking a guided tour of the Solar system giving you an opportunity to see planets like Pluto, Saturn and it’s many moons all from the heavens’ eye view? Imagine closely trailing a comet or asteroid on its journey orbiting the sun? Let alone having real estate on the moon with a retirement apartment for you? For the work freaks, wouldn’t a floating office in space give you the extra zeal to work?

All this may seem too imaginary and unreal but it’s as outrageous to you just as the idea of flying an aeroplane was to earth’s inhabitants six centuries ago. The human race has all it takes to conquer the universe and with the advances made technologically, one day at a time, I can’t rule out inter planetary travel being the norm in the next thirty years with inter galactic travel being achievable within a century from now.

Our ability to visit space repeatedly, at will and with ease will go a long way in enabling us push the boundaries of space ambition. A rocket should be able to take off from earth, deliver passengers into space and return all within minutes and then make another flight within the hour, essentially being re-used five to eight times a day. That way, the cost of access to space per head will drastically go down.

This is one of the reasons am excited about the foresighted approach of the new Ugandan Secondary School syllabus that has added Astronomy as part of the package to be taught to students. A good understanding of what the universe has in store for us will push our children into aspiring to challenge the new horizons. Maybe it could also be one of the solutions to the numerous land conflicts that we are faced with.

@wirejames on twitter

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