There have been some pretty amazing moments in space exploration these past few months, from Curiosity landing on Mars, to SpaceX becoming the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the ISS, to director James Cameron announcing plans to mind the freakin’ asteroid belt. With private companies such as SpaceX tossing their hats into the…er, space ring, commercial spaceflight has the potential to drive space exploration forward in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Apollo missions. Now eccentric billionaire Richard Branson has spoken out about his ambitious plans for the industry: he wants to “start a population on Mars.”
That’s a mighty ballsy goal, given that we have yet to even land one human on the Red Planet. Branson isn’t known for playing it safe, however, and his Mars goal is just part of an overall plan to make space travel – eventually – affordable enough that many average families will have the chance to do what only astronauts have done so far. “There are only 500 people who have ever been into space,” said Branson during an interview with CBS News. “They are the privileged astronauts … we just want to enable people to become astronauts and experience it.”
The whole Mars thing is somewhere down the road, obviously, but there are steps along the path that will come sooner. Branson says that his Virgin Galactic company will begin offering two-hour commercial space flights, probably next year, for a price of $200,000. That’s hardly within the vacation-spending range of most families, but it’s still a step toward making commercial spaceflight a viable industry.
Branson also says that the returns from these early commercial flights will allow Virgin Galactic to move on to even more ambitious goals. He told CBS:
I think over the next 20 years, we will take literally hundreds of thousands of people to space and that will give us the financial resources to do even bigger things … That will give us the resources then to put satellites into space at a fraction of the price, which can be incredibly useful for thousands of different reasons.
But what about Mars? What sort of timetable is Branson thinking of for that whole “starting a population on Mars?” He doesn’t get specific, but he does believe it will happen in his lifetime. “I think it is absolutely realistic,” says Branson. “It will happen.”
We hope he’s right.