Pilots May Fly Commercially to Space in 2014

I remember being a kid and watching Han Solo sitting in the Cantina scene on Tattoine, shortly after he fried Greedo (Han definitely shot first, by the way). I remember his co-pilot, Chewie, and the old man and annoying kid that he was set to transport to Alderaan—and I remember the ship. The Millenium Falcon, the only ship to have made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, was perhaps the coolest part of the Star Wars films to me. In fact, one of the reasons that I became a pilot was because of how Harrison Ford portrayed Han Solo—and because I hoped, as a kid, to someday pilot spacecraft half as cool as the ‘Falcon. That day may come sooner than any of us expect.

A couple of companies have recently made strides in commercial space travel, with Virgin Galactic successfully completing a third rocket-powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo, a passenger spaceship meant to carry paying customers through space and Earth’s upper atmosphere. Orbital Sciences has also made headlines by docking with and successfully delivering supplies to the International Space Station. This could mean big things for commercial spaceflight and civilians who want to fly routes and missions in their very own Millenium Falcons.

In case you thought you read wrong above, it is correct that commercial pilots are the ones flying to space. Virgin Galactic’s near-future plans (some say within this year) are to fly every-day passengers (or at least the ones that can afford the $250,000 round-trip ticket) to beyond the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere for a little joyride. David Mackay is currently Virgin’s chief pilot testing the limits of craft such as SpaceShipTwo, most recently flying 13 miles above the Earth’s surface, a long-shot away from the 62-mile mark that marks the internationally accepted boundary for space.

While it may seem like 13 miles isn’t much in the face of the proposed 62, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides has stated publically that 2014 is the year that Virgin plans “to go to space, and start operating commercially.” His major concerns with that industry, echoed by many others, including myself, usually involve government restriction.

In the event that good ‘ol Uncle Sam, as well as the rest of the global airline/spaceline community, continues to allow this marvelous feat to happen, much of the action will be centered around New Mexico’s Spaceport America, a fun mix of terminal, runway, and hanger. I like to imagine Pizza Planet from one of my children’s favorite movies, the original Toy Story. Unfortunately, details on what kinds of qualifications pilots would have to have are not easy to find. Lord only knows what types of piloting equipment and experience one would need.

Hopefully, as 2014 continues to ramp up, so will our forays into manned, commercial spaceflight. For the record, I’m not one for high-altitude flights anyway, so I will not be piloting any of these aircraft. In fact, I have no idea what type of qualifications one would have to possess anyway to fly in the upper-atmosphere, if any. Will we have to create a new type of pilot’s license? Should it be the same? Comment below.

Author: Chris Oquist

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