Brad Pitt is, Michael Schumacher is, and Stephen Hawking is too. They are waiting. They are excited. Some 580 well-known and unknown people have lined up for the adventure of their lives. They are going to a place where only a few people have been, at a price very few people can afford. They are going into space with Virgin Galactic, and the price of a ticket for this ultimate joyride is US$200,000.
In return for their investment, the civilian astronauts can look forward to a most exceptional experience. While the passengers are strapped into comfortable seats, SpaceShipTwo will rocket up to an altitude of 110 km at a speed of almost 4,000 km/h. From there, the view of the Earth is stunning – a spherical, blue and white oasis in the middle of pitch-black space.
Once they are safely into space, the passengers will be allowed to unfasten their seat belts and experience the ultimate freedom – moving weightlessly about for nearly five minutes – before heading back to New Mexico’s biggest desert. The voyage lasts two hours, and the price is around $2,000 per head per minute.
The price includes a borrowed space suit, a set of astronaut wings, a DVD recording of the space flight, and, of course, an experience of the kind that would make any real adventurer green with envy.
Space plane breaks the sound barrier
The Virgin Galactic aerospace company organises the charter flights, and although the company put the first tickets up for sale eight years ago, the date of the first flight still hasn’t been set. The maiden voyage has been postponed several times, and whereas the company previously expected the first departure in 2009, Virgin Galactic is now hopeful they can make the first flight this year.
The countdown to this new era in tourism has been a long one. In New Mexico, the landing strip was established years ago,and at the same location the world’s first tourist spaceport, Spaceport America, has emerged out of the desert sand. The WhiteKnightTwo jet plane, which will carry the space plane up to an altitude of 15 km, and the space plane itself, SpaceShipTwo, are about to be ready for takeoff. In April 2013, it carried out its first rocket-powered test flight, reaching a speed of Mach 1.2 and an altitude of 17 km. Back then, the owner of Virgin Galactic, British billionaire Richard Branson, gleefully said:
“This is a magnificent day and the by far most important test flight in the Virgin Galactic programme.”
Room for fun
Virgin Galactic can thank American aircraft designer Burt Rutan and his company, Scaled Composites, for the fact that its dream of charter flights in space is about to come true.
In 2004, Rutan was awarded the prestigious Ansari X prize of US$10 million for the first privately-developed, reusable rocket plane, which could complete a manned space flight. To be considered for the award, the plane had to reach an altitude of at least 100 km twice in two weeks. Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne passed the test, and he was soon contacted by Branson.
The latter had been juggling with plans of space tourism for a long time, and with the existence of Rutan’s innovative craft, success was suddenly within reach. The only drawback was that the rocket plane only accomodated one pilot and two passengers, who were to be seated in the cockpit. From interview surveys, Branson knew that future space tourists demand more. They do not want to remain strapped into their seats. If they are to pay a lot of money for a space voyage, they want an out-of-seat experience, moving weightlessly about the cabin.
Rutan’s solution to the problem was SpaceShipTwo – an improved and bigger version of SpaceShipOne. SpaceShipTwo accomodates two pilots and six passengers, who will have lots of space to move during the 4-5 minutes, in which they are allowed to feel the effect of weightlessness.
Passengers must get used to the conditions
Anyone in good health and with a fat wallet can book a seat on the space plane. The oldest passenger on the waiting list is 90, and children are also welcome, if they are declared fit for fight just like any other passenger in connection with the medical check prior to departure.
The adventure begins, when the passengers check into a hotel in Spaceport America. There, all emergency procedures are explained, and the passengers are presented with a space suit and helmet, so they will have time to get used to the equipment and learn how it works. The preparations also involve that the participants take a flight on the WhiteKnightTwo jet plane, whose cabin and custom-designed interior is an exact copy of SpaceShipTwo’s. During the flight, the travellers are informed how to make the best of every second of the space voyage, mentally as well as physically, and how to utilise weightlessness optimally.
Prices will fall
Since Yuri Gagarin of Russia became the first human in space in 1961, only some 530 other individuals have followed suit. But when Virgin Galactic begins the new space age, the number of people who have been to space will more than double in two years. Branson intends to invest in a fleet of space planes, enabling the company to offer at least one departure a day from New Mexico, making the group of astronauts grow fast.
In 2024, Virgin Galactic expects to have sent some 30,000 people into space, and then, the price of the space adventure will probably have fallen considerably. But it will never be cheap. According to Branson, the spacefares will fall, as rocket technology develops further, and the fleet of space planes grows:
“It is my intention to make space voyages financially practicable for as many people as possible, so those children, who grow up today dreaming of going on a space mission, will be able to afford it, when they have become adults,” he emphasises.