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September 14, 2015
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Sub-Saharan Africa: Why Space Tourism is the Next Great Frontier


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By Kim Muller

As I write this, Virgin Galactic is already well on its way to becoming the world’s first commercial spaceline. The company is currently focused on getting SpaceShipTwo and LauncherOne into commercial service. Now aside from the obvious research, technological, and scientific advances this company is working on, Virgin Galactic is hoping to democratise space flight ‘for the benefit of life on earth’. This is essentially what the future of luxury tourism can look like, folks. 

Here’s a breakdown of your flight to space, taken from virgingalactic.com: “Once all astronauts are safely on board, WhiteKnightTwo will take off and climb to an altitude of ~50,000 feet and…the pilots will release SpaceShipTwo from WhiteKnightTwo…Within seconds, the rocket motor will be engaged, and SpaceShipTwo will quickly accelerate to approximately three and a half times the speed of sound, …propelling the vehicle and its crew on their way to space…Having just experienced a thrilling, dynamic rocket ride, the dramatic transition to silence and to true weightlessness will be a profound moment for our astronauts as they coast upwards towards space…As SpaceShipTwo coasts up into space, our astronauts will leave their seats and experience true, unencumbered weightlessness. The pilots will manoeuvre the spaceship in order to give the astronauts the best possible view of Earth and the blackness of space from vehicle’s twelve large cabin windows. After several minutes of weightlessness, our astronauts will return to their seats to prepare for re-entry.”

Sounds thrilling, right? The one unfortunate thing is we’ll probably not see this as a viable holiday option for a good decade or two – if not longer. But we can still enjoy the wonders of space practically in our backyard. And the great thing about it is that a visit won’t cost half a million US dollars. I was recently fortunate enough to bump into Public Outreach Astronomer and Post-Doctoral Researcher, Dr Luke Tyas, who works with SAAO (South African Astronomical Observatory). He’s seen first-hand how space tourism around SALT (Southern African Large Telescope) has impacted the local town of Sutherland. SALT is remarkable; at 11m in diameter it is the single largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere and amongst the largest in the world – so there’s definitely a reason visitors would want to see it up close! 

Head of SAAO’s Collateral Benefits Programme, Sivuyile Manxoyi, explains how Sutherland has changed since the SAAO has been working in the Northern Cape: “There were only two bed and breakfast businesses in Sutherland before SALT was built, and Sutherland was not regarded as a tourist town. The building of SALT and institution of new tours, transformed the town in a revolutionary way as there are currently 40 bed and breakfasts and guesthouses, as well as 18 guest farms. Sutherland and SALT as a major attraction welcomes between 12,000 and 14,000 visitors per year.” This shows how important space tourism is for both the present and the future. “Tourism in Sutherland not only has economic benefits but the visitors are introduced to the wonders of the Universe and get to enjoy intimacy with the various jewels of the night sky,” Manxoyi concludes, “They acquire knowledge and inspiration based on astronomy. Sutherland has given South Africa a pinch of how astro-tourism can lead to development…in various aspects of society including economy, education and culturally.”


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