In December 2009, Richard Branson unveiled ‘Virgin Galactic’. The project wasn’t so much a way of popularizing space tourism, but to prove that the concept of sending untrained ‘astronauts’ into space was feasible.
Although the project was deemed groundbreaking at the time, it has since become an ongoing embarrassment for Branson. After selling 300 tickets - for $200,000 each - shortly after Galactic was announced, he delayed its launch over and over again, with the spacecraft’s engine neither suitable, nor safe enough to take people into space. Following a switch from a rubber based solid fuel to a plastic based alternative, one of the pilots died in a test flight, and another was seriously injured. Understandably, Galactic has since hit a brick wall.
As Virgin Galactic slowly goes off the radar, the next major innovation within space tourism is likely to raise even more eyebrows. Canadian space company, Thoth Technology, has been granted a United States patent to start work on a space elevator. And while the concept sounds like it’s been thrown together by a bunch of five year olds, Peter Swan - Lead Editor at Space.com - sees no reason why the project won’t work ‘whether it’s by 2035, 2060 or even 2100.’
The geostationary orbit starts at around 22,000 miles up, and with current technology, is completely impossible to get to. Thoth Technology’s space elevator, however, will be an understated 12.4 miles high, and will therefore sit within the Earth’s stratosphere.
Rockets are expensive because when taking off they use up a lot of fuel fighting against atmospheric drag. The drag is much weaker 12 miles up in the air, and would subsequently make the process more straightforward. Thoth’s CEO, Caroline Roberts, states: ‘Landing at 12 miles above sea level will make space flight more like taking a passenger jet’, and could make space tourism cheaper, more convenient, and ultimately more likely to happen. Research would also profit, and there would be opportunities to generate energy from wind turbines which exist higher up in the earth’s atmosphere.
According to the Guardian, the elevator ‘would be inflatable, made with reinforced segments and topped with a runway from which satellite payloads could be launched’. The elevator’s designers claim that pressurized cars would run either within the structure or outside it, with each being able to carry upwards of 10 tons. More detailed plans are expected to be revealed soon.
If delivered, Thoth Technology’s project is indicative of the pace at which technology is developing. Even people who were educated in the last decade look at a ‘space elevator’ and dismiss it. It would definitely be a breakthrough for space exploration, and science in general.
You would have to feel sorry for Dubai too. It could potentially mean that 25 years after it made so much effort to construct the world’s tallest building, it could be eclipsed by a structure a staggering 20 times taller than it.