‘The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever’ said Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, aka the granddaddy of modern rocketry and astronautic theory. With the birth of companies like Virgin Galactic, who currently has a three-year waiting list of people willing to pay a cool $250,000 for a 90 minute space voyage (looking at you, Justin Bieber), it seems he was right.
The key players
Virgin Galactic is arguably the most well-known player in this modern-day space race, largely thanks to it’s rockstar CEO Sir Richard Branson, and let’s face it, it’s hard not to get swept up in Branson’s visionary narrative. His plan translates to one new launch every 32 hours by 2023, meaning that 1565 people would be ticking off the box of intergalactic travel on their ‘to do list’ every year.
So, Virgin Galactic aside, who are the other key players and how do they differ? Blue Origin is in the process of ‘building a road to space’ with their reusable, suborbital rocket system New Shepard. This flight consists of a rumbling, full throttle ascent beyond the Karman Line, the internationally recognised boundary of space, allowing you to experience (what I imagine to be) the calm tranquility of weightlessness, then returning you to Earth for a cushiony landing. And get this – this all happens in the space of 11 minutes! In the time you prepare and drink your morning coffee, you could be getting hurled into space and back again. What a time to be alive!
Of course, it would be incredibly remiss of us to write a space travel article without featuring Elon Musk – the eccentric billionaire working with NASA to make humanity a multi-planet species. In classic Elon Musk style, his company, SpaceX, aims to answer David Bowie’s question ‘is there life on Mars?’ with an enthusiastic ‘almost!’ Yep, the plan is to colonise Mars. The recent successful test flight of his Starhopper Spacecraft prototype (the trailblazer for future prototypes that will eventually culminate in Starship, the spaceship that will intergalactically transport 100 passengers at a time) means that it’s not as crazy as it may have once seemed.
If your mind isn’t suitably blown yet, add to all of this that NASA has announced the opening of the International Space Station for commercial business. The catch? If your name doesn’t start with Jay and end with Z, you probably can’t afford it. We’re just sayin’ that the nightly cost of $35,000 per person, not including Wi-Fi (yes, seriously) and baggage fees, nor the actual flight to and from space, is something to consider.
But let’s not get bogged down in the financial details and instead ask the burning question of ‘why space?’ All these companies share the same vision of why space travel and multi-planet colonisation is necessary, and it centres around the preservation of humanity in the face of Earth’s uncertain future. We can’t deny that another contributing factor is the sheer spirit of adventure and curiosity. Think about the first explorers and colonisers that left their homes and countries to voyage into the great unknown, crossing seas and lands to head into the great unknown. The question of what else is out there and the longing to see it have dominated humanity since the beginning of time.
But let’s be down to earth (couldn’t help it). Due to it’s insane cost, space travel will remain inaccessible to the bulk of humanity…but at least we have Dark-Sky reserves. Some of these areas are protected from development that causes light pollution, meaning they are ideal for some serious star-gazing. Besides the famous Northern Lights in Iceland, here are some of the top-picks:
Atacama Desert, Chile
Northern Chile’s Atacama Desert has the clearest night skies on Earth. Enough said, I guess? It’s also the driest, non-polar desert on Earth and a fascinating place to explore.
National Parks of the Southwest United States
More specifically, Big Bend National Park has the least amount of light pollution, and is also one of the most remote, and least-visited, national parks in the USA. It also has awesome hiking, camping, and boating. Tick, tick, tick.
La Palma, Canary Islands
La Palma is home to three IAC International Astronomy Observatories, which offer guided tours of the night sky. The land aspects of La Palma’s not bad either, with stunning beaches, volcanoes and forests to entertain you during the daylight hours.
Western Australian Outback
It’s no secret that Australia’s outback is huge, expansive and isolated – all ideal conditions for star-gazing. On top of that, you can have a more unique experience by listening to Aboriginal stories and legends of the night sky.
Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal
As National Geographic stated, ‘this is where the roof of the world touches the sky.’ Apart from the seriously stunning night skies, trekking through Himalayan villages and mountains to see them is a big part of the experience.