By Mark Ingle
Photographs by Chris Marais
Most people will have heard by now of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic (VG) company which is developing an offering to take space tourists (at $200 000 a pop) on a joyride to just beyond the limits of the earth’s atmosphere. VG’s suborbital flight involves a ‘mother ship’ (WhiteKnightTwo) which carries a baby craft (SpaceShipTwo) tucked underneath it, up to a height of around 25km. Here mommy disengages the 8-seater toddler to fire up its little rocket engines which carry it to just beyond the 100km mark. There the passengers will be treated to a few minutes of weightlessness, and to mind-reformatting views of Starship Earth. Once the craft has re-entered the earth’s gravity field its fuel will have been exhausted and it will float down to its launchpad ‘spaceport’ like the solitary falling leaf some may remember from the Peanuts cartoon strip.
What many people don’t realise, however, is that the Karoo is ideally suited to host a custom-built spaceport – along the lines of the VG facility in New Mexico. Why so? To host a spaceport you need terrain that satisfies the following conditions:
- Restricted airspace from the ground to infinity, to create a natural pathway into orbit;
- High elevation which lowers the financial costs for vertical rockets and increases payload capacity;
- Sparsely populated surroundings to minimise insurance and risks;
- Clear bright sunny days;
- Dry air to minimise corrosion;
- An anchor tenant.
Sound like a place you’re familiar with? Indeed – the Karoo qualifies with flying colours. But, hey! Where’s our anchor tenant? Oh, and two to three billion Rand wouldn’t go amiss either. ‘Peanuts’ in the grand scheme of things.
Alaska, Australia, Kazakhstan and Sweden already have functioning spaceports and Israel, Brazil, China, Russia, India, Japan and the Ukraine are close behind in capability. Are we in Africa condemned to be forever flown over and subjected to a shower of popcorn and peanuts from happy space trippers? No. Africa must acquire its own spaceport – and where better to situate it than in the Karoo?
Now all we need do is look out for our very own (well-heeled) White Knight in shining armour to come over the horizon and put us on the map. Any takers?
(Dr Mark Ingle is a founder member of the Karoo Development Foundation based in Philippolis, southern Free State.)