The dream of space tourism is becoming a reality. Here, Captain Lim Khoy Hing takes us behind the scenes of commercial space travel.
Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, a spaceflight company under the Virgin Group owned by the fervent British entrepreneur, is gearing up to provide commercial space flights to space tourists. Branson’s close friend, none other than AirAsia’s big boss Tony Fernandes, once remarked that he would probably be one of the first passengers to travel into space on a Virgin Galactic spacecraft.
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Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is set to be the world’s first commercial spacecraft when it commences operations, scheduled for 2023. The spaceliner will carry six passengers on board each flight on a 2.5-hour journey into suborbital space above the surface of the Earth.
According to premier online news site Business Insider, SpaceShipTwo will fly to an altitude of 100km (approx. 62 miles) where passengers would be able to experience weightlessness for a few minutes and have the opportunity to look down and see Earth – the mission of space tourism.
As exciting as this sounds, those who are keen to experience space travel currently need to have deep pockets − a ticket on the SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle is priced at USD250,000.
Firm bookings to board SpaceShipTwo are targeted to commence in 2020 and it is reported that around 650 space tourists have already signed up for Virgin Galactic’s cosmic tours. Agent4Stars.com lists some of the names in the distinguished line-up of space tourists, which includes celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Paris Hilton, Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks.
When space travel becomes more popular, the next logical destination would be the moon. This may presently sound far-fetched, but cast your mind back 92 years to Charles Lindbergh’s first non-stop solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927 − it was this successful flight that became the cornerstone of modern air travel as we know it today.
I had logged a total of 25,500 hours at the time I left active flying duty with the airlines. For the sake of perspective − it is as if I had ‘flown’ about 22 times to the moon and back, based on the distance between Earth and our shiny natural satellite. A single trip to the moon is about a quarter of a million miles, so a return trip equals about half a million miles.
Theoretically, the number of times ‘flown’ is correct but in reality, it does not work that way. A jet plane cannot fly in outer space because there is no air to support the aerodynamics of flight.
An airplane cannot be classified as a spaceship. A spaceship has to be launched vertically by a rocket from the ground to attain the earth’s gravity orbital velocity − the speed an object is required to reach in order to keep it revolving around the planet.
To do this, the spacecraft has to be launched vertically to escape the planet’s gravity and fly into deep space.
As mentioned, any vehicle hoping to launch into orbit has to travel about 11km per second, or around 40,000km/h. The commercial Airbus A330 can only cruise at 800km/h – that is 50 times too slow!
There is also the issue of fuel. The shortest distance between Earth and space is about 100km (62 miles) straight up. To reach orbit this way, you need almost two million litres (520,000 gallons) of rocket propellant and two strap-on rocket boosters to lift a 100-tonne space shuttle and its cargo into space in under nine minutes.
However, there are alternative means by which a conventional aircraft can reach space without having to burn so much fuel, which is almost similar to how Branson’s SpaceShipTwo works. The spaceship is dropped from a high altitude aircraft. Once clear, the spaceship pilots aim the vehicle skyward, ignite its rocket engine and reach suborbital space.
In space, a rocket zooms around with no air pushing against it. Hence, rockets behave according to Newton’s third law of motion: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. In line with this, when a rocket shoots fuel out one end, it is propelled forward.
A Dream Come True
In the not too distant future, it may indeed be possible to Fly Me to the Moon, as Frank Sinatra once so fondly envisaged. One can’t help but wonder, when the time comes, if Tony will get to enjoy premium space travel with Virgin Galactic.
In the meantime, I wish you an enjoyable flight to your on-ground destination with AirAsia
Captain Lim Khoy Hing is a former AirAsia Airbus A320 and AirAsia X A330/A340 pilot who also used to fly the Boeing 777. He has logged a total of more than 25,500 flying hours and is now a Flight Simulator Instructor with AirAsia X. In his spare time, he shares his opinion on aviation issues with others. For more air travel and aviation stories, check out his website, ‘Just About Flying’ at askcaptainlim.com
Captain Lim Khoy Hing’s second book Sky Tales (a follow-up to Life in the Skies, which won third place in the Reader’s Choice Award at the Malaysia BookFest 2015) and the Mandarin version of Life in the Skies are now available for purchase on board all AirAsia and AirAsia X flights. Pre-book your copy at OURSHOP.com to enjoy these great collections written by a veteran aviator.