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Will commercial space flight be like Ad Astra? We went to a flight base to check it out
Science fiction has long been the domain of fanciful imagination, particularly as it pertains to movies set in space. A significant portion of spacefaring sci-fi asks the viewer to imagine what life might be like in the distant future, or with the benefit of incredible, as-yet-undeveloped, technology. Or else it asks us to imagine first contact with an alien civilization. Spoilers: It usually doesn’t turn out well.
Ad Astra, directed by James Gray and starring Brad Pitt, does something a little different, though not wholly unheard of. It imagines a world just a few decades off, one that appears, for the most part, as a reasonable facsimile of what space travel of the future might actually be like — and not too far into the future, either.
**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for Ad Astra below**
Ad Astra isn’t without its own flights of fancy. There are Moon pirates, the pursuit of alien contact, and at least a couple of middle fingers cast lovingly toward the law of physics. But for the most part, and despite most of it taking place off-world, it feels grounded. There isn’t any time travel, no cryogenic pods, and no warp drive. Space travel, as portrayed in the film is arduous, slow, and, at times, lonely.
Ahead of Ad Astra's home release, SYFY WIRE traveled to the deserts of New Mexico (almost an alien planet in its own right) to visit Spaceport America, talk with astronauts, NASA engineers, and commercial space travel experts, about the film, the role of science fiction, and the future of space travel, which has become the next frontier in human transport.
THE PRESENT AND FUTURE OF COMMERCIAL SPACEFLIGHT
Roy McBride (Pitt) works as an astronaut on the International Space Antenna, a massive piece of engineering designed in hopes of communicating with non-human intelligences elsewhere in the universe. When a dangerous burst of energy from the far reaches of the solar system destroy the antenna, McBride barely survives a vertigo-inducing freefall from terrifying heights.
Once back on the surface, Roy embarks on a mission to save the world from a potentially catastrophic event that threatens all life on Earth. The explosions on the antenna were only the beginning, the hint of a far greater cosmic threat, originating near Neptune.
Getting to the far reaches of the solar system will take several crafts and a layover on Mars, but first he has to get to the Moon. And in order to do that, he has to ride coach, so to speak.
Rather than take a government-operated craft to the Moon, McBride flies Virgin Atlantic. It’s an interesting story choice and one which does a lot of world-building without having to say too much. Commercial spaceflight, in the world of Ad Astra, is mundane. Common. There are flight attendants and (expensive) onboard amenities. Space is no longer the domain of the few, dominated by world governments and those chosen few. Instead, it’s available to anyone and everyone. At least everyone willing and able to shell out the cash.
Science fiction often hand waves the technology needed to accomplish large-scale travel to, and extended living in, space. The service Ad Astra, and movies like it, provide is to present at least one possible way forward. And that’s important.
“One of the biggest missions of science fiction in general, whether it’s movies or novels, is to tell us what is possible, or what could be possible, and give us some optimism that we can get to that point,” said Robert Yowell, former NASA Engineer and technical adviser for Ad Astra.
Private companies have been pursuing commercial spaceflight for decades. At least since the ‘70s, designs have been floating around which intended to carry dozens of people off-world. These plans never materialized.
From a certain point of view, consumer spaceflight is already happening. In 1984 and ‘85, Charles Walker became the first non-government individual to go to space. He flew a total of three shuttle missions on behalf of his employer, McDonnel Douglas Co, who paid NASA $40,000 per flight.
In 1990, Toyohiro Akiyama flew to MIR, on behalf of the Tokyo Broadcasting System. The total cost is in dispute but ranges in the tens of millions.
As of earlier this year, NASA has opened the International Space Station to commercial enterprises. In addition to commercial research, the ISS is being opened up to commercial astronaut missions. According to the announcement, there will be two slots for commercial astronauts each year, beginning as early as 2020. These missions will be short-term, up to 30 days, and will be privately funded, dedicated commercial flights.
This would mark a considerable shift in the culture of spaceflight, effectively beginning a new era of regular non-government human activities in space.
While commercial flights to the ISS would open the door to space for private citizens, several companies aren’t content to wait for permission. In fact, Virgin, the company which ferried Roy McBride to the Moon, is making moves to get there itself.
Virgin Galactic, the spaceflight arm of the Virgin Group, is developing its own planes intended for commercial spaceflight. The original intent was to have flights in progress by 2009, but the project encountered a few setbacks, not unheard of in this arena.
Still, earlier this year, two of Virgin’s test pilots were awarded astronaut wings by the U.S. Department of Transportation after a successful flight to 51.4 miles above Earth’s surface, surpassing the 50-mile benchmark recognized by the department.
Virgin Galactic is currently operating out of Spaceport America, in New Mexico. The site serves as the first purpose-built commercial spaceport in the world. Sitting on 18,000 acres, the spaceport offers a rocket launchpad, hangers for holding spacecraft, and an impressive runway built with landing space planes in mind.
Once Virgin’s commercial operations get off the ground, the primary focus will be tourism. The company will offer suborbital flights for a fee, but that’s just the beginning. While initial flights will take off and land at the same location, the ultimate goal is point-to-point flights to different locations around the world. This would require considerably more spaceports in varying locations, but could revolutionize travel. At least for those who can afford it.
Because these flights would be happening at such high altitudes and traveling at such incredible speeds, travel times would be drastically reduced. These sorts of point-to-point spaceflights could deliver a passenger from L.A. to Hong Kong in two hours.
Robert Yowell, however, holds a grander view of what commercial spaceflight is trying to do. Yes, they are trying to accomplish the decades-old dream of spaceflight for the common person, but it isn’t just about making money.
“We are at a precipice now, where exploration by sailing ship was in the fourteenth century. If you look at the timeline between Columbus and Sir Francis Drake, it was hundreds of years. Because there was no economic reason to do it. Now we’re at a point where people understand there is money to be made in space. And that’s going to open up the doors to exploration to allow flights to Mars, etc. NASA was the genesis for all of this and NASA should never go away. But commercialization is really what the world has been waiting for the past few decades,” Yowell said.
There’s good reason to believe he might be right. During a panel on the future of spaceflight, at Spaceport America, each of the panelists, Robert Yowell, Ellen Ochoa, Leland Melvin, and Daniel Hicks spoke of witnessing Apollo 11 and the way it influenced them, in ways they might not have understood at the time, to ultimately pursue paths which lead them into space. And in the case of Melvin and Ochoa, into space itself.
While activities in space, both crewed and uncrewed, have continued since Apollo we’ve been missing that spark of excitement for some time, the electric anticipation and sense of victory over nature and over our own limitations, which will inspire the next generation of explorers.
Maybe the proliferation of commercial space travel, is just the thing we need to get today’s kids excited about pushing into that final frontier.
When asked about what was exciting in space travel today, Melvin said, “One of the most exciting things is you can have a panel like this and have a discussion with a Hispanic woman and an African American male astronaut on the panel. The representation in movies and in real life, in space, is helping everyone feel like they have a seat a the table to be part of this journey.”
While the pioneering work by NASA and other space agencies around the world is immeasurable, moving space into the private sector and making it available to everyone, is the next logical step opening up the possibility for everyone to be part of the journey.
It’s reasonable to expect continued delays, not just from Virgin Galactic, but from all commercial spaceflight endeavors. Traveling in space is a dangerous undertaking, one which requires considerable caution. This is one area in which it’s better to be right than it is to be fast.
With any luck, companies like Virgin Galactic, Blue Horizons, and SpaceX will realize the dream of extending human spaceflight to humanity, at large, in the coming decades. Until then, we’ve got our dreams and our stories. But we might want to rethink building an Applebee's on the Moon.