And so, finally, after months of waiting and teasing, on Monday, with much pomp and ceremony, and with flashing lights galore, “Spaceship 2″, the ‘world’s first commercial passenger-carrying spacecraft’, was revealed to the world…
The billioniare behind the program, Virgin boss Richard Branson, could hardly contain himself he was so excited, and as he stood there, in front of his super-sleek spaceship, beaming for the crowds of photographers, reporters and space enthusiasts, it was clear this is something he really believes in, passionately, and isn’t just doing it for the money, the exposure or the glory. He’s helped create a beautiful spacecraft, that’s for sure. With its swept back wings and bullet-shaped fuselage, carried into space by ”Eve”, SS2 looks every inch the 21st century private spaceplane, and predictably the media have gone into absolute fawning meltdown over it, giddily declaring that “The Age of private spaceflight is here!” and “Soon flights into space will be available for everyone!”
Sorry to be a party-pooper, but, um, that’s not actually the case, is it?
I mean, no disrespect to the ship, or the team behind it; I’m sure it will really shake things up a bit. But the very bottom line is that, as I understand it, SS2 will NOT go “into space”. Now, before anyone writes a comment pointing out that “space technically begins xx km up, so technically speaking SS2 WILL go into space”, let’s be honest, shall we? SS2 is a sub-orbital craft. It will go up TO THE EDGE of space, give its mega-rich, fare-paying passengers a few precious moments of zero gravity, and a chance to see the blue and white Earth curving and spread out below them inbetween spattering barfs into their complimentary “Virgin Galactic” sick bags, then it, and them, will come down again. It will not go into orbit. It will not have to re-enter. That will have to wait for a later model, perhaps SS3 or even SS4. So – at the risk of being blasphemous here – I personally have a bit of a hard time thinking of SS2 as a “spacecraft”.
And I’m sorry, but the arrival of SS2 absolutely does NOT “open up space travel to normal people”. Come on, be serious. It opens up sub-orbital trips to the edge of space to mega-rich people who have £120,000 to throw away. That’s not you, or me; that’s not the people who enjoy a week’s holiday in Spain or Greece every summer; that’s not the family that treats itself to a two week break in Florida. SS2 is for millionaires – pop stars, movie celebrities, businessmen, etc. One day the price will come down, that is absolutely certain, but for the forseeable future “space” will still be reserved for either a) professional astronauts or rich people flying to the space station, or b) rich people who don’t mind forking out more money than I’d earn in half a dozen years just for 5 minutes of floating about.
So I’m sorry, but I’m going to wait until the first private spacecraft actually goes into orbit, and comes down safely again, until I’m ready to accept that a Bright New Age has begun. That age is on the horizon, certainly, but it’s not here yet.
But taking off my Mr Grumpy hat, when I saw the pictures of the grand unveiling I was quite excited about one aspect of the SS2 story for an hour or so – its name. “Richard Branson has chosen his spacecraft’s name well,” I thought. And when you think about it, what other name could he have chosen..?
Ah… there you go… see?
Now, to many people “out there” that’s just a name, just a word. But if you’re like me, just saying – just thinking – that word makes you shiver just a little bit. Because “Enterprise” IS ‘space’ for many, many people, perhaps two whole generations of people, thanks to a certain rather famous science fiction series from Ye Olden Days…
Ever since I was a young kid, watching STAR TREK on the small, cranky, you-often-have-to-slap-it-on-the-top-to-make-it-work black and white portable telly I had in my bedroom, I’ve been in love with the USS Enterprise. And I don’t use that word lightly. I LOVE that ship. I must be one of the few people in the world who wasn’t bored during the five minute long sequence in STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE when Kirk’s shuttle drifts around the newly-refitted Enterprise in its drydock, high above the Earth. I loved every drawn-out, self-indulgent, over the top, space geek porn moment of it. I was there, in that shuttle, peering over Kirk’s shoulder, wanting to push him out of the way, drinking in every moment, savouring the sight of the spotlights bouncing off the great starship’s hull, loving it, just loving it…
And I’ve loved every version of the Enterprise that’s appeared on-screen since (well, with the obvious exception of the Excelsior class version; god, that’s an ugly spaceship design, isn’t it? What were they thinking? That monstrosity even makes an Orion capsule look graceful – actually, no, it doesn’t, I take that back, sorry! )
The “re-imagined” Enterprise-on-steroids featured in the new movie has been criticised brutally by some fans as being too far removed from the original(s), design-wise, and for being just too big. Trek fans who take this very seriously have – somehow – measured the size of the new ship and reckon it’s about the same size as one of those wedge-shaped Imperial Star Destroyers from Star Wars, i.e. much, much bigger than the “original” Enterprise seen in the TV series and early films, which is a huge enough crime against Trek to warrant execution for Producer JJ Abrams. Personally, I’m not that bothered. Externally the new Enterprise is just gorgeous – even if it is a lot bigger – and it is true to the heart, spirit and soul of the original spaceship. It has the same sleek lines, the same powerful-looking engines, the same graceful saucer section. It’s a design classic, like Concorde, a Rolls Royce, or Ugg boots on a tall blonde. It just works. It just Looks Right.
(Actually, I do have a problem with the new Enterprise, Mr Abrams, if you’re reading this. My problem is with the ship’s interior – its bloody awful. The engineering decks are all huge tanks, gantries and metal railings and ladders that make it look more like the inside of a brewery than the heart of a starship. And those Scotty-scooting water pipes? Where did you get those from, Willy Wonka’s factory?! Please. I hope you change it for the sequel, I really do. I won’t even need an explanation why it changed between films, just get rid of all the pipes and tubes that make it look like a huge version of “Mousetrap” and I’ll be happy…!)
How much do I love the Enterprise? Ok. Confession time: yesterday whilst shopping in Blackpool (which was shut, by the way, as it’s the end of the holiday season and every shop along the seafront was either closed or boarded up. Not a stick of rock, box of fudge or bag of cinder toffee to be found anywhere, very poor!) yesterday, I found something that I just had to have. It was duly bought for me by my ever-supportive and understanding partner, and I’ll be given it for Christmas. What is it? This…
Yep, a model of the USS Enterprise from the new movie. Ok, when I say “model” I suppose I really mean “toy”, because it’s plastic, has flashing lights, and when you press a button dialogue from the movie comes out of a little speaker, but I don’t care! I saw it sitting there on a shelf – discounted to a third of its original price – and knew I had to have it, because … well, because I’ve always wanted a model of the Enterprise, and I’ve never had one, just like I never had one of the classic Airfix Saturn V rocket kits, becauase they were too expensive (pauses for “Awwwww!” from readers). I did have an Airfix kit of the “Eagle” lunar lander, but that fell off a shelf and broke. I had a plastic model kit of a space shuttle orbiter too, but that broke as well, and wasn’t really that good anyway. But haha, now I have my Enterprise!
Seriously, why is this spaceship and its appearances on screen such a big deal to me, and to so many other people? Isn’t it just a stupid spaceship – and a make-believe one at that?
Well, the thing is, to me – and I say this in the full knowledge that some of you reading this will laugh at me, but I don’t care – the Enterprise represents spaceflight just as much as an Apollo lunar module or space shuttle orbiter does. It stands for the spirit of exploration, and speaks to me, and many people like me, of the beauty of just Going Out There. Look at this picture:
Isn’t that the kind of spaceship that Mankind deserves to travel to the stars in? Isn’t that the kind of spacecraft that should carry into space members of the same species responsible for the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal? It isn’t “functional-looking”, it isn’t “practical”, I know, but it’s… beautiful, it’s worthy of us.
And this is why I am so anti-Orion. Yes, I know that compared to the space shuttle it is a safer design, it’s more versatile, it’s more practical, yada yada yada, but it’s a hideous, snub-nosed, pug-ugly looking thing, and if I was an astronaut, putting my ass on the line, I’d much rather fly into space, and (hopefully) come home again, in something that at least looks sleek and graceful and attractive, instead of something that looks like a recycled Apollo capsule. I know that’s not a popular or common view, but it’s mine, and it’s heartfelt, and I won’t change. After a generation of runway landings and walking down steps, astronauts deserve better than to return to Earth strapped into a metal can and dumped into the ocean. It’s just wrong.
Anyway, back to my original point: I was initially delighted to see the name “Enterprise” on the side of SS2 when it was unveiled, and thought “Finally! An Enterprise in space – !” Then I remembered, SS2 isn’t going INTO space, is it?
And I thought “Oh crap… this is the first space shuttle, all over again…”
History lesson for all you young ‘uns. Back in the late 1970s, when the Moon landings were a memory and NASA was preparing to fly the first space shuttle missions, there was a massive campaign by Star Trek fans to get the first space shuttle named “Enterprise”, in honour of their beloved starship. And yaay! Their campaign succeeded! “Enterprise” was duly rolled out with great fanfare, gleaming white in the sun, and Gene Roddenberry and members of the Star Trek cast came along, in their best wide-collared suits and flares, to see the shuttle and celebrate, along with many of the series’ fans…
But it was a massive own-goal, because the first shuttle built was destined to never actually fly in space – it was a test vehicle, designed to be carried aloft by a modified 747 jet and then let go, to glide down to a runway landing after its short flight, the idea being to see how well it handled, aerodynamically, as it flew through the air after re-entering the atmosphere…
The so-called “Approach and landing tests” were great successes, but, sadly, Star Trek fans never got to hear astronauts talking to Earth from an orbiting “Enterprise”. And that’ll be true with SS2, too. The spaceplane won’t truly go into space, won’t actually orbit the Earth, so the dream of having an “Enterprise” actually In Space is going to remain that for a while longer, which I’m quite sad about.
The shuttle “Enterprise” now stands in a gallery inside the famous Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. I hope to go and see it myself one day, walk alongside it, and take photographs like this…
In the Smithsonian’s Washington “Mall” site is the Smithsonian’s shop, and what has pride of place within the shop..? This wonderful, beautiful model…
So ha! It’s not just me, is it? Alongside the world’s largest collection of famous aircraft and spacecraft there stands a model of a fictional spaceship that has, for almost four decades, captured the imaginations and hearts of millions and millions of people around the world. If I ever get to the Smithsonian I’ll probably spend almost as long looking at that model as I will gazing wide-eyed at the real spacacraft on display there…
I know we’re a long, long way from building a real Enterprise. We’re a good century, at least, away from being able to go up to the fence of a starship construction yard and see this view…
But one day we will build an Enterprise, I truly believe that. Probably not a starship; our first starships will be functional, practical and ugly – no need for them to be anything else as they cross the gulf between the stars, after all - but more likely a life size model, designed as a tourist attraction for guests at some orbital hotel to ooh and aaah over from the hotel’s observation deck. But that’s okay, it will still serve its purpose, it will still call out to us and inspire us just by being there.
That’s why I’ll be proud to have that model of the starship Enterprise standing on my bookshelves after breakfast on Christmas day, even if it is just a toy, really.
It’s a shame that SS2 “Enterprise” won’t fly into space. But one day a real spaceship bearing that name – perhaps built by Richard Branson, perhaps built by one of his competitors, perhaps even built by NASA – will leap away from ground, slide into orbit around the Earth, and millions of people around the world will grin from ear to ear as they hear the spacecraft’s name spoken by its astronauts and ground controllers, then go outside, into their gardens, look up and see a spark of light skating across the starry sky, and know that, at last, after all the waiting, an Enterprise is finally in space.
Where it belongs.
NOTE: For a very well-informed and constructive examination of the ways in which SS2 could eventually make space travel for private citizens more affordable and easier, I urge you to read the Comment by my good friend Dan Brennan at the end of this post. Dan has a much greater understanding of the economic side of this, and I’m grateful to him to showing me the other side of the coin. Thanks Dan!
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