It's a myth people can't go to space: Stephen Attenborough

Stephen Attenborough, Commercial Director, Virgin Galactic, says space travel is no flight of fantasy. For now, it's affordable only for the wealthy, but his company finally intends to make this amazing journey possible for everyone. Excerpts from an interview to Sidhi Chadha:

What's the idea behind commercialisation of space travel?
Richard Branson and I have dreamt about this for so long and it has almost been 10 years now! We announced this spacecraft quite early but it has taken us time to launch it. However, these 10 years have helped us in understanding the technology and the mindset has also changed now. Our main concern was how to get people into space. It's dangerous and the risk of going up is very high. But this is our effort to inspire the private sector to think and invest. We, however, can't deny that the space is our future. The current status is that the spaceship is under construction and we will be launching the prototype in a few weeks.

The aviation industry is prone to disasters, such as the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003. What safety measures have you adopted for the passengers?
I completely agree that space travel can prove to be unsafe. But we are trying to make every aspect of space travel secure for the passengers. We are planning a spacecraft that could fly back into the atmosphere. The Columbian tragedy happened due to the heat tiles in the aircraft. But 'Space Ship One' will never build up the heat. I can easily claim that the spacecraft we have got designed on the lines of a shuttlecock is simple, unique and absolutely safe. The first few seconds are the most crucial moments of space journey. We are ensuring the spacecraft has strong resilience and a great combination of present and future technology.

So what is the space travel experience like?

Stephen Attenborough
Stephen Attenborough
When an astronaut from NASA goes into space, we are always curious to know what exactly happens there, what people do and other related things. People want to know what the atmosphere is like and experience weightlessness. They want to come back and share their experience with the world. I guess that is the biggest kick of it all. And we are making it possible. The myth that people can't go to space will break soon.

Will civilian flights to space make us understand our planet better or help improve human behaviour in any way?
That's exactly the idea behind making space travel accessible to the general public. It's important for humans to understand Earth and the issues concerning it - be it climate change or the depleting ozone layer. It's important for us, humans, to understand how fragile our planet is.

Is Virgin Galactic a viable business model or merely a publicity stunt?
We are obviously here to do business and make money. It's not for charity. But all we want is that we do it safely, not at the cost of our passenger's life. And it is definitely not a publicity stunt. Space tourism can help us in more ways than one: We can launch satellites in space, outsource solar energy among other things.

But space travel is obviously not very affordable or meant for everyone.
Yes, I agree. Right now, we are only catering to people who are wealthy and can afford a trip to space. It's an important business for us. But the idea is to make it accessible to people across the board. The price of (space travel) ticket will come down to realistic levels in the near future.

Many times in the past, NASA has resisted the idea of making space travel commercial. What could be their concern?
I think we are competing with NASA in lots of ways although there is no rivalry. They send their astronauts to space for scientific research and now we are trying to take the common man there. Another concern they could have is the safety of passengers. However, they have been supportive and we are trying to work closely with them. NASA even plans to outsource certain activities to us. And we might just be doing some studies for them.

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