If you ever happen to take a trip through the deserts of New Mexico, you may be shocked, and perhaps pleasantly surprised, to stumble upon the set of the latest science fiction blockbuster. Or at least, so you’d think. You see, much like an idea straight from the pages of our childhood books, a fully integrated commercial spaceport dubbed Spaceport America was inaugurated in the arid environment of New Mexico last month. The futuristic-looking facility, the brainchild of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic corporation, is the first of its kind globally to offer eco-sensitive space travel for both larger-scale commercial tourism and research purposes. Scheduled to begin suborbital passenger trips in 2013, which include travelling at 3 times the speed of sound beyond our atmosphere, and the iconic sensation of weightlessness, the short trips are priced at a hefty $200,000 (although prices are expected to come back down to earth as demand increases).
In designing the new facility, developers envisioned the birth of a potentially new and exciting industry, with special emphasis on the many challenges humanity faces regarding renewable energy and sustainability. The $200 million facility, which creates a seamless marriage with the environment by being nestled partly into the earth, boasts the complete usage of local building materials, high-efficiency photovoltaic solar panels throughout its exterior, a fully integrated water filtration system and natural daylight which can be controlled by flexible apertures on its massive roof. Moreover, its low-lying design allows warm air currents to be cooled and circulated under the earth, to be distributed to all areas of the building, thereby allowing passive wind energy to control the climactic ambiance of the complex.
As a testament to their commitment to research and innovation, Virgin Galactic has recently signed a contract with NASA which will allow NASA research aboard Virgin space vehicles, even integrating the launch of satellites from altitudes beyond our own atmosphere. In doing so, cash-strapped NASA not only hopes to save millions of dollars by garnering the innovative technologies of these new space vehicles, but also hopes to reduce the overall carbon footprint of satellite launches by moving them away from the earth’s surface. Moreover, researchers look to do extensive studies pertaining to the depletion of the ozone layer and on finding (even more) definitive causative factors for global warming.
Through its successful ventures in commercial airline travel in the past, The Virgin Group has invested heavily in biofuel and sustainable energy research, an initiative they will carry over to the largely unknown realm of commercial space travel. The first commercial space flights will utilize burnt rubber, nitrous oxide and kerosene as propellants, with more efficient biofuels currently in experimental stages. Despite not having full biofuel integration in their space vehicles as of yet, however, the current design is expected to have only about 60% of the carbon footprint of a conventional London-New York two-way airline trip during a regular 3-hour trip in space.
As part of his vision to integrate business ventures through tourism and scientific innovation, Sir Richard Branson is confident the space trips will inspire tourists to be more passionate about the environment by giving them a unique and irrevocably humbling perspective of our earth. Despite the seemingly paradoxical nature of eco-friendly space travel, we too, cannot help but be inspired by ideas such as these, that gradually prove to be simultaneously educational, innovative and sustainable, even if our wallets don’t quite reach for the stars to allow for the experience first-hand.