As I have discussed in previous column articles the “Space Race” began when the Russians (then the Soviet Union) sent up the first astronaut (they called them Cosmonauts) Yuri Gagarin for one orbit of the earth April 12, 1961. From the very beginning of the United State’s entrance into this race the public couldn’t get enough of it.That includes me. I watched every trip from launch to recovery. On the Network News broadcasts we watched film of the successful launches and then they were televised live. The public couldn’t get enough of our Mercury-7 astronauts and their exploits.
The Gemini series of flights put two astronauts in space ending the solitary flights of the Mercury program. Again the public showed interest in each launch and splash-down.
That excitement started to wane during the Apollo flights and when Apollo 13 was launched the news media pretty much ignored the live broadcast from space when the astronauts gave a tour of their spacecraft. Interest peaked, however, after the explosion in space that crippled their craft and not only ended their chances of landing on the Moon, but nearly ended their lives. Once again the public couldn’t get enough information concerning the efforts to get the three astronauts safely back to Earth.
There weren’t too many missions after that and again interest in the space program dropped off. As I explained in a previous article, the Skylab space laboratory brought back the public’s interest in our people living and working in space.
The Space Shuttle program really grabbed everyone’s attention and we again saw live broadcasts from Earth orbit. Since the final shuttle journey the astronauts had to utilize Russian space vehicles to go to and from the International Space Station. It seems that the public and the media report on our space activities and the days of everyone sitting in front of the TV screen anxiously watching the launches.
All of the people who traveled in space were professional astronauts until 1985 when Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, was chosen to be the first civilian to go into space. Sadly and tragically she died as one the seven crew members of the Space Shuttle Challenger when it exploded on January 28, 1986.
There has been a lot of chatter that civilians will soon be able to go into space just like the professional astronauts, that is if they have a big bank account. Sir Richard Branson is one of the reasons the chatter is getting louder. Branson’s Virgin Galactic Company has been in operation for 15 years with this very project to take private citizens into space and return them safely back to earth.
Saturday May 2, 2021 was an historic day because Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity took its two pilots on its first rocket powered flight from New Mexico to heights near the edge of space at three times the speed of sound reaching a peek altitude of 55 miles above sea level.
VSS Unity is flown from the ground strapped to the belly of a specialized carrier plane. The VSS Unity’s engines are fired once the plane takes it to the proper altitude. That makes it easier for Unity to blast off and reach space without having to launch from the ground which would have meant a heavier vehicle carrying more fuel to leave the surface of the Earth.
According to an article in Phys.org, Michael Colglazier, Virgin Galactic CEO said, “The flight today was elegant, beautiful. We’re going to analyze all of the data that we gather on these flights. But watching from the ground and speaking with our pilots, it was magnificent. So now it’s time for us to do this again.”
Two more test flights are planned and the next on will have four crew members on board instead of the two that made this test flight. The plan is to carry four crew members and two tourists who would have to pay an estimated $250,000 each for the flight. I guess that means I won’t be taking that ride anytime soon.
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