Well, Richard Branson went to space recently, on his Virgin Galactic plane/rocket. I had been meaning to pitch my two cents about it; so here it is...
I was fortunate to be able to watch the entire event, streamed live, on Youtube, from the Virgin Galactic Youtube channel. My first thoughts, or first impression, upon tuning in, was: "This is weird." That impression went unchanged. Why was it weird? I'll try to explain.
It just felt, in a general sense, as if I was supposed to feel a sense of monumental accomplishment for mankind; when, it seemed like anything but. For one, there were very few people actually involved in the broadcast; so you had this sort of, 'isolated,' feeling. Sort of like hearing your own echo in an empty auditorium. I was not alive at the time of the shuttle launches to the moon; but, I have a feeling it was a sort of, everyone is watching, and time is standing still, sort of event. For the first time in the history of the human species, we had set foot on the moon. Watching Branson go to space, did not, feel like that.
Ya know what it felt like, actually? It sort of felt like watching some one open a birthday present. Really, *lol*. That's the best way I can describe it. Imagine you are friends with some one, who knows some one famous in Hollywood; and that person invited your friend to their huge 40th birthday bash. They also allowed everyone they invited to bring one friend of their own. So imagine you are at this party, you don't know anyone there except your friend, and at some point, this rich and famous, yet distant person, sits down to open the mountain of birthday presents everyone brought for them. And then, imagine, the party wasn’t even really all that great. The music kind of sucked, the entertainment provided was mediocre at best; and the most enjoyable moments were the few minutes you snuck outside to have a cigarette, and just marvel at how grand this person's estate was. I think that really sums up the feeling I had when watching this.
Watching the actual VSS Unity plane/rocket, was a bit amazing, actually. The technical aspect of it, and watching it perform, was pretty exciting. Everything else was mostly just, kind of weird. On top of that, the cameras inside the craft decided to, 'not work,' for the entirety of the event. So basically we were all tuning in live to just watch, nothing, happen. *lol*. I didn't much care for the entertainment either. Having Stephen Colbert host the event was kind of familiar and a nice touch, I suppose, however.
The one thing, though, and this is really the only true gripe that I have; is that the, 'passengers,' of Virgin Galactic were referred to as, 'astronauts.' That bullshit really ticked me the fuck off. If I hop on a commercial jet flight, from Chicago to New York, that does NOT, make me a fucking pilot. That makes me a commercial plane passenger, *lol*. Throughout the entirety of the stream they kept nailing home the idea that these, passengers, of Virgin Galactic, were about to become astronauts; and upon landing, had become astronauts. No, they, were, fucking, not. They became the first passengers of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity. That's it. An astronaut, is a god damned, space explorer. An astronaut is some one who is highly trained, to perform exceptional work, in space. Astronauts do fucking, space walks, and manipulate instruments, and pilot fucking space craft. Astronauts set foot on distant bodies in space as representatives for humanity in the endeavor of space exploration.
Say for example, we do a manned mission to mars somewhere in the near future. The first people to go there, will be, astronauts. They will be risking life and limb, to do some really fucking insanely crazy shit, that nobody has ever done before. That earns you a title of astronaut. Now if we colonize mars, establish nice little hotels there for people to visit, and create commercial ventures to shuttle people back and forth from mars, those people coming and going from mars, would be, 'passengers.' The work of space exploration, by astronauts, will have been completed; and the way for, ‘passengers,’ and mars, ‘tourists,’ or, ‘colonists,’ will have been paved.
There was a point where Chris Hadfield (an actual Canadian astronaut who was co-hosting the event) exclaimed that he had the, "ridiculous honor," of presenting Richard Branson with his, 'astronaut wings;' and I wondered if he wasn't saying that in a sort of tongue-in-cheek way.
So that's my take on the whole thing. It was mostly weird, a bit odd, technically amazing, and infuriating in the end. I don't care if a billionaire wants to go to space. I really don't. I'm not going to hate on Branson for being a rich bastard. I also don't care if only ultra wealthy can only afford to go to space this way. If some one wants to blow several million on a 2 minutes zero gravity space vacation, fine. The only slightly disappointing thing, is that, it's come to this. Instead of nations working together to explore space together, we have some rich bastards blasting off on extremely expensive private enterprise rockets. The real angering thing about it though, is that they are calling themselves astronauts.
To claim yourself an astronaut, when you are only really fulfilling the role of, at best, slightly briefed passenger, to me, seems like a disservice to not only the people who have risked everything to further mankind's progress into space exploration, but the people who have lost their lives in such endeavors; and the many, many, men and women who worked so hard, to put those people into space. The highly trained, risk taking, and pioneering space explorers, were/are, astronauts. And for Branson to call himself and his fellow passengers, astronauts, is something I find insulting; to whatever extent, if any at all, I have the right to feel insulted. Maybe what I consider to be, true astronauts, aren't actually bothered by Branson and crew calling themselves astronauts. I haven't looked into it; I don't know. But, to top it off, I’m not sure Branson even made any noteworthy acknowledgment to all the men and women of history who have contributed to space exploration. Don’t quote me on that; but, I’m pretty sure the vast majority of the whole broadcast was just a really drawn out commercial demo. What they should have done is devote at least a good half-hour to the history of space exploration. They should have covered the beginnings all the way to present, and then, inserted themselves into the picture; because that's where they belong, at the trailing end of several decades of monumental efforts towards space exploration, much of which was performed by real astronauts (in my opinion anyway). He did at least make some important mentions; but, I think a lot more should have been said.
So, that's my opinion. Some rich billionaires want to go to space, fine. It's disappointing in some ways; but, that aspect of humanity in general, probably was destined to go in that direction at some point. However, to consider yourself, as a passenger aboard Virgin Galactic, an astronaut, in my opinion, is, ridiculous. Did they take a great and daring risk? Sure, I’ll grant them that; but, I don’t think that qualifies them to anywhere near the degree of their legitimate astronaut predecessors. Richard Branson is not an astronaut, not by my appraisal. But hey, the beginning of commercial space flight has begun. What's not to celebrate about that? Large multinational corporations are usually always improving the world for the better and are often a joy to deal with; right?
On the bright side, though, in 50 or 60 years time, perhaps one day, people will be taking vacations to spend in orbit in space hotels. That’d be kind of neat, maybe. I’m not really bothered by the fact a very small number of extremely wealthy people get to do things the common man can’t; in a way, I’m glad at least some one gets to live it up from time to time. But, that’s a different topic, and a different discussion.
Congratulations Richard Branson and crew. And especially, congratulations to everyone who worked and contributed towards a working commercial space flight vehicle and venture. You aren’t astronauts though. You were passengers. Brave passengers, to be sure; but, passengers none the less.