The whole world was mesmerised when on July 20, 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong put his left foot on the lunar surface and famously declared, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” When, on the same day 52 years later, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos returned to earth after a 10-minute flight in his spacecraft, all he could utter was: “The best day ever”. He had been beaten at his own game by another billionaire, Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson, who took a similar flight nine days earlier. While Bezos wanted to synchronise his journey with the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, Branson just wanted to be one-up on Bezos.
There were, of course, many differences between the two flights. While Branson’s was a piloted rocket plane, Bezos’s capsule was fully automated and required no staff on board for the up-and-down flight. Accompanying Bezos was a hand-picked group, consisting of an 18-year-old from the Netherlands and an 82-year-old aviation pioneer from the state of Texas. When Bezos auctioned a seat in his capsule, it went for as much as $28 million. However, the winner chickened out at the last minute and opted to take a later flight. No one knows for how much the seat was eventually sold. Of course, neither of them could beat the record of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who rocked into orbit on April 12, 1961. After all, the first will always be the first!
The same goes for climbing Everest. No one can beat the record of Tenzing and Hillary when they reached the highest peak in the world in 1953. The two had a purpose. They wanted to prove that man could fight climatic adversities and conquer Everest. For the hundreds of others who followed in their footsteps, it was just to prove that they too could do so. The space missions of the past were with a purpose. They had a scientific objective in that they sought to find out whether life was possible in space and whether the lunar surface approximated what poets and fiction writers of yore had written about.
The space missions of the past were also attempts by the two superpowers to prove who was the number one in terms of scientific prowess. Once the US won the race and the Soviet Union disintegrated, the American government lost interest in the prohibitively expensive space programme. NASA had to find ingenious ways to raise funds. The space vacated by NASA is now being invaded by businessmen like Branson and Bezos, who find big money in space tourism.
That Virgin Galactic already has 600 passengers waiting for a seat in the spacecraft at $250,000 apiece is a measure of the business potential. The two successful flights will definitely boost business, eventually bringing down the fare. They, therefore, mark the beginning of the universalisation of space travel for the sheer thrill and adventure it provides, though only for the rich.