The Future of Space Travel
Call it space tourism. Call it the opportunity of a lifetime.
"Maybe I could be one of those people to see the black and the blue."
That's what David Horowitz of Irvine, California, was thinking when he first heard about Virgin Galactic's plans to send earthlings of the non-astronaut variety into outer space. He immediately called the company to invest in the future of space travel, and now finds himself among the original 100 Founders, as Virgin Galactic dubs those first intrepid passengers who invested in their tickets to outer space.
Around 400 people have committed to the $200,000 fares aboard Virgin Galactic as the airline, helmed by Sir Richard Branson, gets ever closer to making commercial space travel a reality for the masses with means. And Virgin isn't the only company interested in space tourism. Boeing has also announced that they are marketing seats on flights to the International Space Station, starting in 2015.
But exactly who is jumping on the bandwagon of commercial space travel? "It's very difficult to give you the typical [passenger profile]," says Virgin Galactic Commercial Director Stephen Attenborough, "We're about 70 percent male. And 50 percent of the total come from the U.S. and 15 percent from the U.K. We have somewhere close to 45 countries represented in total." Attenborough says it's not surprising that such a large percentage of Virgin Galactic's initial passengers hail from the U.S. "It's U.S. technology, and the U.S. is a great space exploring nation, " he says.
Indeed, after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969, it was thought by many that space travel would develop more quickly into something accessible for the rest of us. But that wasn't the case.
"We'll be celebrating 50 years next year of the first man in space, and we've still put less than 500 people into space in 50 years," says Attenborough, "And that's not what was expected at the time." The people at Virgin Galactic often refer to what they're doing as democratizing space travel. "It's never expanded into the area we're trying to expand it into," says Attenborough, "Opening space for just about everybody, offering the space experience to as many people as possible."
And plans to bring that to fruition, he says, are moving into the final phases. "We are in a stage now where it is a reality in most respects," he says about space tourism. "The prototype really proved the technology as far as the safety," he says, referring to SpaceShipOne, the groundbreaking aircraft designed by legendary aviation designer Burt Rutan and Mojave-based Scaled Composites.
SpaceShipTwo -- the spacecraft in which future Virgin Galactic passengers will be launched into outer space -- was unveiled to the public in December 2009. The new model is about twice the size of SpaceShipOne, with room for six passengers and two pilots and large windows beside and overhead of each seat to allow maximum views whether passengers opt to float around the cabin or stay strapped in.
In order to imagine how Virgin Galactic's brand of space travel will work, you have to get images of a classic NASA shuttle launch out of your head. Instead of a land-based launch, Virgin Galactic's system involves a mothership, called the Virgin Mothership Eve (VMSEve). The innovative aircraft, also designed by Rutan and built by Scaled Composites, is the largest all-carbon composite aviation vehicle ever built and, according to Virgin Galactic, the most fuel efficient of its size.
Sir Richard Branson inside VMS Eve; Virgin Galactic
The VMSEve, a twin fuselage aircraft with one enormous wingspan that stretches 140 feet across, is the vehicle that will carry SpaceShipTwo into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. SpaceShipTwo will be positioned under the wing, between the mothership's fuselages, for the ride up. From an altitude of over 50,000 feet, the spaceship will be launched from the mothership, using its own rocket power to reach its destination of 68 miles above the Earth's surface. The most recent test flights, Attenborough says, had a pilot inside the spaceship "taking the last preparations for the first solo flight of the spaceship."
During the next phase of testing, the spaceship will be released from the mothership at about 50,000 feet and will glide back to the runway, the same way it will eventually return to Earth when its paying customers are onboard, too. After that, testing of the first powered flight of the spaceship will begin sometime in 2011, says Attenborough. "It is an incremental program," he says, "The first of the powered flights will be very short, and we'll gradually build on that."
So what will the experience ultimately be like for passengers once all systems are go? After the spaceship is released from the mothership, it will be traveling around 100 knots. "Then you'll reach four times the speed of sound, heading straight up, and outside the window, the sky is rapidly changing color from blue to black," Attenborough says.
Inside the spaceship, things will change very dramatically. "You go from extreme acceleration, and once they have enough velocity they will shut the rocket motor down, at the top of the flight," he says, "And immediately you go into an environment of zero gravity." The noises will disappear, the g-forces will disappear, and passengers will feel instantly weightless. "We will allow them to leave their seats at that point and they will float away from their seats," says Attenborough, "And they will have several minutes to float around in a big, generous cabin." Passengers will have about five to six minutes to experience weightlessness and the wondrous views before returning to their seats. The entire flight time is around two hours.
Photograph of earth taken by pilot and astronaut Brian Binnie on his X prize winning flight, October 2004; Virgin Galactic
And as one would hope, SpaceShipTwo's cabin is designed to maximize the incredible views. "You are in daylight but in black sky, not blue sky," says Attenborough, "You will be able to see about 1,000 miles in every direction. You'll be able to see weather systems, land masses, and the electric blue light of the atmosphere around the curvature of the Earth."
Back on Earth, the testing and future passenger operations are all being carried out at the hyper-modern Spaceport America facility -- the first purpose-built commercial spaceport in the world, located in the New Mexico desert. In addition to New Mexico's perpetually sunny weather, the location had other draws for Spaceport America. Its location near the White Sands Missile Range means no commercial air traffic nearby and the area is so sparsely populated that there is a reduced risk to the public. The nearest towns are Truth or Consequences and Hatch, New Mexico, both of which will eventually host visitor centers that will be starting points for organized tours of the Spaceport, according to Spaceport America's Executive Director, Rick Homans.
Things are progressing nicely. "The runway is pretty much done. The terminal hangar facility is about halfway done," says Homans. He anticipates that by mid-2011, construction on Spaceport America will be largely completed and the facility will move into the pre-operational phase. And while the exact date of the Virgin Galactic's first commercial launch is still unknown, it's certainly drawing closer. As for David Horowitz, that early ticket purchaser: "I am waiting on baited breath."
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