Those childhood fantasies you had of zipping up a spacesuit and heading out to explore the galaxy may soon be within reach. The Space Shuttle program has officially been retired, but Richard Branson is leading the way in giving the public a chance to take sub-orbital spaceflights via his Virgin Galactic craft.
Anyone with enough disposable income to spend on such a trip is likely to have one important word on his or her mind: safety. Is it really feasible for space flight to become as routine as the airplanes that shoot into the skies every day? How are these new spacecraft being tested?
The answers may surprise you, as they lie in a symbiotic relationship that’s existed for many years between spectacular space machinery and ordinary Earth-bound vehicles like cars, motorcycles, and boats.
XCOR is a spacecraft manufacturer leading the charge into the skies and beyond. Like Branson’s company, they are hoping to make civilian spaceflight nearly as routine as reading the morning paper. But when it came time to test out parts for its Lynx Suborbital Spacecraft, the company brought the project back down to Earth.
Instead of taking to the skies, XCOR fitted a Triumph motorcycle with key propulsion parts and sent a rider off on a huge 20-hour road trip to see how those parts held up. Could this be a sign of things to come? If you see a snowmobile zipping across the landscape at unusual speeds, it may just be testing out an important component for the new space race.
Fortunately, the XCOR motorcycle test worked out just fine, so if you’re looking to head up in one of their crafts, you can rest easy – although interested parties will need to shell out a cool $95,000 for the pleasure.
It’s not just motorcycles that are being furnished with space tech: Boats are also enjoying benefits from programs devised for interplanetary craft. In 2005, Marc Thiercelin and Eric Drouglazet pioneered the use of such technology in the Transat Jacques Vabre, international sailing contest. Their boat was equipped with solar cells, batteries and an intelligent power management system originally designed for Europe’s space programs.
NASA has also been involved in creating products for the high seas. A report highlights how the NASA-funded Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program (SATOP) aided Mosca Custom Boats by providing engineering assistance from a variety of partners involved in the U.S. Space Program.
The idea of NASA taking to the water does make sense—after all, we’ve all watched lunar modules land in the ocean after the various Apollo missions. Perhaps the high seas could be lucrative territory for NASA to explore now that the Shuttle program has come to an end.
General Motors sent the first car into space. No, really – they did. It happened in the form of the Lunar Rover that traversed the craggy surface of the moon, after going up with the Apollo 15 mission. The Rover contained a mobility system designed by GM and it didn’t even get a flat tire from the harsh terrain it encountered up there.
Car manufacturers have also found an Earthly use for space tech, after borrowing an idea from the International Space Station. Volkswagen’s Autoeuropa factory in Palmela, Portugal uses object recognition and tracking concepts – created for the automated docking of spacecraft to the International Space Station – to help slot car parts together.
Yes, that dashboard on your car really could have been carefully attached in the same way that the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) docks with the space station. It might not be the flying car you dreamed about while reading comic books as a kid—but it feels like we’re getting close.