Saturday, January 26, 2008

"Will you officially become an Astronaut?"

The answer is yes, if you sign up for a ride on SpaceShipTwo, the first commercial space vehicle. Both the craft and its launching ports are well into production, as announced on January 24th. SpaceShipTwo will carry passengers to an altitude of over 100 km / 62.5 miles above the earth's surface, the international definition of "space", making them eligible to earn their Astronaut wings. Based on Burt Rutan's Ansari X Prize winning SpaceShipOne (2004), SpaceShipTwo is the first carrier in Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic commercial spaceline.

I had the pleasure of attending Burt Rutan's 2004 presentation at the LBJ auditorium here on the UT campus. Truly impressed by his passion for unconventional innovation and his ability for going against the grain, I am once again pleased to know that his company Scaled Composites has considered the potential environmental impact of this venture. The New Mexico spaceport from where White Knight Two (the carrier for SpaceShipTwo) will be launched will be powered by renewable fuels. Press releases do not provide the details of what these fuels are, but I am assuming solar methods will be implemented to take advantage of the desert sun. Additionally, the White Knight's Pratt & Whitney engines will be powered by bio-fuels. Although we know that the "well to wheel" energy analysis for the venture may not be completely renewable, I believe that Rutan's approach to commercial spaceflight will try to minimize the environmental footprint as much as possible.

What excites me more is that the elite clientele who can afford the $200,000 ticket may actually come back to Earth as reformed environmentalists. Or so Branson claims in the following excerpt.

"It is often claimed that the modern environmental movement can be traced back to “Blue Marble” photograph of the Earth taken by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972 and now one of the most widely distributed images of all time. Certainly, many astronauts of the past 45 years have returned to earth as confirmed environmentalists. We believe that the Virgin Galactic experience will have the same impact on many of those who travel with us, providing an important increase in environmental awareness and pressure for change."

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