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11 April 2011
Opinion - Tourism (Good)
We're Still Saying 'Let's Go'
A thoughtful look at the last 50 years of human spaceflight
by Alan Breakstone
On April 12, 1961, a young man from a small Russian village experienced something no one had ever experienced before: the thunder and shake of over 800,000 pounds of rocket thrust erupting beneath him. As Vostok 1 broke free of its launch restraints, Yuri Gagarin triumphantly yelled, “Let’s go!”

Within a few minutes, he was the first man in space.

The excitement of those early years of spaceflight captivated me as a little boy. Watching the early space missions on live black-and-white television is among my cherished childhood memories. As Russian and American space fliers risked everything to reach the moon, there was great optimism about humankind’s future in space.

After seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, it seemed certain that by the real year 2001, I would be able to pay for a ticket aboard that Pan Am space shuttle and tour the moon with thousands of others.

But as the tumultuous 1960’s became the confused 1970’s, I felt that vision of the future decay. The generation that put men on the moon never saw space as more than a military-industrial frontier, a showplace for superpower technological might in what John F. Kennedy called the “long twilight struggle” of the Cold War. The idea of affordable spaceships carrying everyone to the black skies was unthinkable.

But among that first generation of space, there were voices in the wilderness. There was rocketman Robert Truax, who in the 1980’s built a small, single-seat suborbital missile he called the Volksrocket. He almost launched it, but he could find no civilian willing to risk the launch.

And there was Gary Hudson, who struggled mightily to challenge the military-industrial complex with his own private space program. In the Mojave Desert, Hudson’s engineers and pilots tried to build a strange reusable space truck called the Roton. But technical problems and the economic booms and busts of the post-Cold War era grounded the Roton for good.

However, Hudson’s propulsion team refused to give up. They were part of a new generation that grew up with the Space Age…and with ubiquitous high technology. Undaunted, Hudson’s former engineers started a new company called XCOR, one of the first of the “New Space” companies.

They were not alone. The wealthy technology entrepreneurs of their generation were itching to open up space as well. Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen bankrolled Burt Rutan – already a legend in the aerospace world – to build a personal spaceplane, SpaceShipOne. In 2004, Brian Binnie, one of Gary Hudson’s former Roton pilots, drove SpaceShipOne into space to win the Ansari X-Prize and convince the world that space tourism was possible.

In the 1990’s and 2000’s, millionaire adventurers, many of whom made their fortunes in hi-tech, began to ride with cosmonauts aboard rockets similar to Gagarin’s. And Virgin Galactic began selling tickets to ride SpaceShipTwo on regular suborbital tourist flights.

XCOR, Blue Origin, and Armadillo Aerospace are building suborbital tourist craft of their own. And Virgin Galactic is investing in a new generation of post-Shuttle spaceplanes to extend private space travel to orbit.

And for the first time since I was a boy, I believe that before long, I too might get that long-promised chance to float through the cosmos.

It’s enough to make a young man from a small Russian village smile.

Let’s go.
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Alan Breakstone 11 April 2011
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