Quick Take: Virgin Galactic: Will It Fly?
"People want to be able to take off their seatbelts, to float around, to look out the big, big windows we've built... to become astronauts" - Richard Branson
Review: Virgin Galactic: Will It Fly?
(Special) It all started way back in 1991 when Richard Branson decided that balooning solo around the world was fun, but what would be more fun would be getting into space without having to worry about government-run space programs and their huge price tag and tiny accommodations. He saw the Moon Landing as a little kid and had assumed that one day he could go too, and that everyone else could after that. In 1994, he found Bert Rutin, a world-class leading aerodynamics designer that had been designing and testing more than a plane a year since the '60s. Together they formed Virgin Galactic and in 2008 won the Ansari X-Prize, the competition to give $10 million to the first private company who can get two people into space twice in two weeks in a reusable vehicle, and get them back safely. Awesome. After that, it was testing and redesigning and rebuilding and lots of making stuff up as they went (plus one horrible engine failure explosion that killed three people), and last week, they managed to get the launcher that will take a full crew all the way into proper orbit, not just the suborbit that's required for the X-Prize, to fly. So the answer to the title of the special: will it fly? Yes, yes it will. And it won't even have to worry about minute corrections from the pilot or losing all its surface because of reentry-heat degredation, because it's that well designed.
Specials on National Geographic are usually very academic and long-winded, the side effect that happens when their beautiful articles are translated too literally into a one-hour special, but this one is exciting. Riveting, even. It's like watching the future happen, and it restores faith that idealists and dreamers really can get us what we've always wanted -- which is what Richard Branson is really good at, even though in this instance he seems to mostly be for promotion and press conferences. Which is fine. This project should have as much backing as it needs and as many conferences as people will let it hold. It should have copycats and competition. There should be dozens of companies that will take avereage Joes and Janes into space the way there are with dozens of airlines that will take you to Europe. And Richard Branson should build that giant floating-V hotel he wants to build, encrusted with viewing bubbles where guests can be alone with the universe. There's this effect that current astronauts talk about where, when you can see the whole world all at once with your own eyes, epsecially when you can see it from a distance, you care more about it. And that's what the world needs -- a crop, a whole generation, of people who can see the world as one thing and function as if it is, not little squabbling nations making a huge mess of things at ground level.
Who didn't want to be an astronaut when they were little? And how many of those later learned that they weren't tall enough (ahem), or weren't healthy enough, or weren't good enough at math or science or flying or any of the other prerequisites, and had to give up that dream? Branson wants to give it back to us, and I say we need to let him. We need to help him, encourage him, and be ready when he makes it real, because this documentary proves that he's pretty darn close to doing just that.
The best part, though, the real brains and brawn and heart of this project, is that it's about three dozen or so really young and idealistic people. Not many girls, because there's a desperate lack of girls in aeronautics, but lots of guys who have grown up with scifi and have the skills to figure it out for themselves, the drive to do it with their own hands instead of just waiting for someone else to do it for them. That sort of drive is rare in the world, and even rarer is it applied to anything that will affect the whole world in what could be a very positive way. It's inspiring to see, and exciting beyond all belief! These people are literally shaping the future they want to see, and it's already miles more advanced and flexible and viable than what NASA can give us with it's extremely tight budget and decades worth of testing and retesting and over-thinking and cutting corners. There should be bumper stickers: Privatize the New Space Race! and Support Your Local Backyard Astronauts!
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Video: Virgin Galactic: Will It Fly?
This clip shows off the test-flight: