Space is no longer the final frontier.
“We absolutely can go to Mars…it’s a question of will,” George Whitesides, president and CEO of commercial space company Virgin Galactic, tells The Daily Ticker’s Aaron Task in recent interview at TEDxWallStreet. “It will probably be a public/private partnership that also involves international folks. It will be expensive.”
Traveling to Mars may seem like an overly ambitious goal, but sending non-astronauts into outer space could happen “soon,” notes Whitesides.
Virgin Galactic, which was co-founded by billionaire Sir Richard Branson in 2004, will blast hundreds of people 364,00 feet above ground in its SpaceShipTwo shuttle next year. Nearly 650 people have already signed up for the experience, including celebrities such as Justin Bieber, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Katy Perry and Angelina Jolie. Tickets cost $250,000 a piece and the total adventure takes two hours, including five minutes of weightlessness. Passengers get to “float around the cabin and look down at the planet” says Whitesides. “We’ll give you the full space experience, basically.”
Virgin Galactic has delayed its inaugural launch date several times but Whitesides says the company is “deep in the midst of our test flight program now” and is waiting for its commercial operating license from the Federal Aviation Administration. Virgin Galactic may be at the forefront of space travel but it’s not alone in the burgeoning industry: SpaceX (founded by Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk) wants to “enable people to live on another planet” and Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, established Stratolaunch Systems to ferry people and cargo into space with a launch date slated for 2016. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has his own commercial space flight venture, Blue Origin.
Whitesides, the former Chief of Staff at NASA, says the private sector's investment in space tourism actually benefits the underfunded government space agency.
“The private sector is taking the baton on some of these projects and some of the riskier things and I think that will free up NASA to do some of the more ambitious solar exploration things,” he explains.
NASA’s space shuttle program ended in July 2011.
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