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The new Space race

July 12th, 2021 / By: / My Take

by Janet Preus

The U.S. has been seriously engaged in space exploration since 1958 with the founding of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA as we all know it. That act of Congress followed the 1957 launching of the satellite Sputnik by the Soviet Union. 

And the space race was on. 

I stood on a country gravel road with my dad, scanning the night sky looking for that fast moving and extraordinarily bright “star.” Sputnik was so novel at the time that the public became fascinated with the whole idea of space travel. Years later, watching the space shuttle, if one was lucky enough to be along its path to or from a launch, was awe-inspiring, I have been told. 

NASA as an entity has had its ups (the “soaring 60s”) and downs (the recent past), but the public fascination with space exploration has persisted. Dozens of brilliant scientists have trained to become astronauts, and a lucky few have made the journey to the moon and International Space Station (ISS). Space travel, fraught with unknowns and colossal danger, has been reserved for those best trained to manage the risks and reap the most benefit. 

Until now. Richard Branson just kicked off an entirely new space race, one reserved for the extremely wealthy, regardless of their scientific expertise, or lack thereof. Sometime in 2022, Branson’s Virgin Galactic will offer sub-orbital rides on its SpaceShip Two lasting a few minutes. CBS reported that there are already 600 people in the queue, who have paid something around $250,000 to be on that list. Branson’s ride this week beats Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin by just days, but with plenty of people ready to pay for the trip, it’s hard to label the two billionaires “competitors.” 

However, “Space tourism” seems an apt label for what these entrepreneurs are doing, given the purpose of low-orbit flights. That leaves NASA at the helm, though not alone, to figure out the really sticky problems, such as exploring Mars. 

What most people don’t realize is the necessity of high-tech textiles, no matter what you’re flying beyond earth’s atmosphere. Marie O’Mahony’s feature “Breakthroughs in textiles for the aerospace market” delves into the critical role that new textile fibers and composites are playing in the success of space travel now, and into the future. It’s going to be an interesting ride, following the progress of high-altitude, sub-orbital, and eventually crewed deep space travel. One thing we know for sure: ever single trip will have high-performance textile products onboard.  

Janet Preus is senior editor of Advanced Textiles Source. She can be reached at jlpreus@ifai.com.