Nasas greatest feats were a triumph for mankind. History will be less kind to todays space pioneers, says Guardian columnist John Harris
The promised journey is from Earth to the edge of space, rather than London Euston to Crewe, but the story of Richard Bransons company Virgin Galactic still has echoes of a bad passenger experience on his trains. For the best part of a decade, his potential customers have been waiting for an experience that was meant to arrive in 2011, with only one certainty to hang on to: the tickets are eye-wateringly expensive. The price for Virgin rocket travel now apparently hovers at around 250,000, and reports suggest that among those patiently waiting to climb aboard are Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga.
Now, though, there may finally be a breakthrough. Even if he said something very similar in 2017, Branson claims that the rocket-powered craft known as VSS Unity is weeks, not months away from reaching the all-important altitude of 80.4km (264,000ft) above Earth which means that the first paying passengers should be experiencing weightlessness and marvelling at the curvature of the Earth not too long after. As and when that happens, the feat will be framed in terms of a win for him over the two other tycoons who are spending an inordinate amount of money on private space flight: the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, with Blue Origin, and that increasingly accident-prone visionary Elon Musk, the brains behind the electric car firm Tesla, and Space Exploration Technologies Corp, better known as SpaceX.
I am a child of the 1970s, when the first space age was slowly drawing to a close. In those days, fired by the deep rivalries of the cold war, space exploration and travel were collectivist endeavours, and the monopoly of the two super-powerful governments that had unique access to the necessary funds (in the case of the Apollo programme, which put people on the moon, well over $100bn [76bn] in todays prices). As is portrayed in the new Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, American astronauts were apparently modest and unrufflable men, chosen for precisely those qualities. At the space races peak, the teams that oversaw their amazing journeys dissolved into a sea of respectable haircuts and short-sleeved shirts, so anonymous that the names of some of the key people in charge the Nasa administrator James E Webb, or the agencys deputy associate administrator, George E Mueller have been all but lost to history. In retrospect, this represented the ultimate triumph of the postwar bureaucratic state, before the early 1980s began the era in which it was endlessly dismantled.
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