10 years ago,

Hong Kong Tatler - - Features -

a ves­sel known as Spaceshipone soared 100 kilo­me­tres above the Earth, be­com­ing the first manned space flight funded by pri­vate money. It marked the first step in a long and chal­leng­ing jour­ney to­wards build­ing the world’s first com­mer­cial space­line.

Now, after years of missed dead­lines, Vir­gin Galac­tic chief Richard Branson says the company’s in­au­gu­ral space flight will be ready for take-off in the com­ing months. That first flight won’t just be an un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ence for the well-to-do who paid up to US$250,000 for a ticket—it will launch a new era of com­mer­cial travel beyond the Earth’s at­mos­phere.

But if the flight is post­poned yet again, it may well prove Branson’s crit­ics right: that the breath­lessly en­thu­si­as­tic bil­lion­aire is full of hot air, but not enough to get him to space. Ever the op­ti­mist, Branson says, “We’re almost there. What we’re do­ing, it has never been done be­fore. It’s an im­mense, au­da­cious chal­lenge.” He adds cheek­ily, “Even for Vir­gin.”

About 700 peo­ple have al­ready signed up for Vir­gin Galac­tic flights, in­clud­ing a who’s who of in­ter­na­tional celebri­ties, An­gelina Jolie, Stephen Hawk­ing, Philippe Starck and Justin Bieber among them. But it’s by no means a Hol­ly­wood red-car­pet af­fair; the pas­sen­ger man­i­fest will be well stocked with those for whom a space trip is more than just an ex­pen­sive thrill. David Clark, head of Vir­gin Galac­tic’s “astro­naut re­la­tions” di­vi­sion and long-term boyfriend of Princess Beatrice of York, says pas­sen­gers hail from more than 50 coun­tries and range in age from 18 to 92.

“One story I love is about an Amer­i­can man called Silo,” he says. “Silo trained to be­come an astro­naut in the ’60s and was sched­uled to fly twice, but both times his flights were can­celled or he was bumped off, so he never made it into space.” Silo is now 75 and his chil­dren pooled their money to buy him a ticket for a flight. “A real ex­am­ple of dreams re­alised,” says Clark.

Tick­ets for Vir­gin Galac­tic have been sold on a first-come, first-served ba­sis. With room for just six pas­sen­gers per flight, it will take two years for all 700 of the cur­rent tick­ethold­ers to make their jour­ney into space. Richard Branson will be on the first flight with his chil­dren, though his wife opted out. “She has al­ways in­sisted that at least one mem­ber of the fam­ily needs to keep their feet firmly on the ground,” he says.

The Bran­sons will be fol­lowed by Perveen Craw­ford, Hong Kong’s first fe­male pi­lot and one of the first to pledge her money to Branson’s ce­les­tial ad­ven­ture. Craw­ford, a mother of three who ob­tained her pri­vate pi­lot’s li­cence in 1995, was at a launch event for Vir­gin Blue’s ser­vice to Aus­tralia when she spot­ted Branson on a lounge chair “with two gor­geous young blondes.” She worked up the courage to ap­proach him, men­tion­ing by way of in­tro­duc­tion her ground­break­ing role in Asian avi­a­tion. “He im­me­di­ately stood up and asked if I would like to be the first fe­male astro­naut from Hong Kong,” she re­calls. It was a child­hood dream of Craw­ford’s to travel into space, and when she men­tioned this to Branson, the old charmer didn’t miss a beat: “He said, ‘I can make your dream come true!’ I thought he was jok­ing.”

But he wasn’t. Craw­ford paid US$200,000 up front and was ad­mit­ted into a se­lect club of “founders” who meet ev­ery year at Vir­gin Galac­tic events. Craw­ford says she was thrilled to meet US astro­naut Buzz Aldrin at sev­eral of the gath­er­ings. “I watched the as­tro­nauts land on the moon on a blackand-white TV when I was a child,” she says. “I hope I can en­cour­age and in­spire more young girls and women to achieve things higher than ex­pected—to follow their dreams and not to be afraid of fail­ure.”

Com­pared to Aldrin and 536 other as­tro­nauts who have ven­tured into space since 1961, the year of the first manned space mis­sion, Craw­ford and the other Vir­gin Galac­tic pas­sen­gers will be sub­jected to much less in­ten­sive train­ing. “We have found that pro­longed train­ing pe­ri­ods, like what ca­reer as­tro­nauts un­der­take, are not nec­es­sary for a sub-or­bital space flight,” says James Vanderploeg, the space­line’s chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer. Be­cause Vir­gin Galac­tic’s ves­sel, known as Spaceshiptwo, will not be trav­el­ling into or­bital space, it will move much more slowly than other kinds of space­craft. That means less grav­i­ta­tional force when it ex­its and en­ters the at­mos­phere. “At most,” ex­plains Vanderploeg, “pas­sen­gers may ex­pe­ri­ence some mi­nor tun­nel vi­sion or in­creased work to breathe for a few mo­ments dur­ing th­ese time pe­ri­ods.”

Train­ing will take place three days be­fore the flight in New Mex­ico, where a sleek Nor­man Foster-de­signed fa­cil­ity called Space­port Amer­ica has been built in the desert. After spend­ing the night at the Ho­tel Encanto de Las Cruces, about 100 kilo­me­tres away, pas­sen­gers will get to know the space­ship, its equip­ment and the ac­cel­er­a­tion forces they’ll ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing the flight. By the time the flight is ready for launch, pas­sen­gers will have al­ready ex­pe­ri­enced sim­u­lated mi­cro­grav­ity “so that they make the most of their time out of the at­mos­phere,” says Vanderploeg.

Take-off will be fa­mil­iar to any­one who has flown. The dif­fer­ence be­gins at 50,000 feet, when Spaceshiptwo de­taches from its mother ship and a rocket is fired to pro­pel it into space. “As soon as the rocket fires, pas­sen­gers will feel ac­cel­er­a­tion forces push­ing them back into the seat, just like a quickly ac­cel­er­at­ing car,” says Vanderploeg. Pi­lots will steer the space­ship up­wards, which will cause pas­sen­gers to feel

“We’re almost there. What we’re do­ing, it has never

been done be­fore. it’s an im­mense, au­da­cious chal­lenge. Even for vir­gin”

this launch could be rev­o­lu­tion­ary: fly­ing from hong kong to new york via sub-or­bital space would only take a cou­ple of hours

in­stead of 16

like they are be­ing pulled down into their seats at three-and-a-half times the force of grav­ity.

The rocket burst lasts for a lit­tle more than a minute. Then—si­lence. Pas­sen­gers will be free to move about the cabin. “They will have the op­por­tu­nity to re­lease their seat­belts and float through the cabin, look­ing out the win­dows to see the in­cred­i­ble view of the Earth be­low them,” says Vanderploeg. That mo­ment, one so many have dreamed of, will last for six min­utes. Then it’s time for re-en­try into the Earth’s at­mos­phere. Seats will be re­clined un­til flat as pas­sen­gers will feel six times the force of grav­ity, “but this is eas­ily tol­er­a­ble,” says Vanderploeg. The ves­sel will glide in to land like a nor­mal air­plane, with the whole ex­pe­ri­ence hav­ing lasted two hours.

If you think that sounds like a small re­ward for a big price tag, you aren’t alone. Vir­gin Galac­tic’s crit­ics have been per­sis­tent and have only grown louder as Branson keeps breez­ing past self-pro­claimed dead­lines. Branson has promised a space flight almost ev­ery year since 2010, but de­lays have mounted as test flights failed to reach the speed and al­ti­tude nec­es­sary to pro­pel pas­sen­gers into space. Con­cerns have been raised about gov­ern­ment spend­ing on Space­port Amer­ica, the ex­clu­sion of Chi­nese na­tion­als from space flights due to US anties­pi­onage laws, and the use of rub­ber and ni­trous ox­ide in Spaceshiptwo’s rocket, which could pro­duce harm­ful air pol­lu­tion.

The most mer­ci­less critic has been Branson bi­og­ra­pher Tom Bower, who claims that “Vir­gin Galac­tic is in dan­ger of be­com­ing a white ele­phant.” In a book pub­lished ear­lier this year, Bower casts doubt on the company’s abil­ity to make a profit, to ad­dress the tech­ni­cal chal­lenges of fly­ing into space and even to get a li­cence from the US Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion (FAA).

Branson brushes aside such con­cerns. He says the hefty ticket prices will en­sure Vir­gin Galac­tic breaks even within three years. And Bower’s pre­dic­tion about not get­ting per­mis­sion to fly has al­ready proved wrong, as Vir­gin signed an agree­ment with the au­thor­i­ties in May that will al­low its space flights to go ahead. “We have to be driven by safety and readi­ness, not cal­en­dar dates,” says Branson. “It is hard to see how we could have got where we are to­day any quicker. And we are years ahead of any­one else in the field.”

When asked about the project’s de­lays, Branson calls on a common id­iom: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” And it re­ally is an em­pire that he’s talk­ing about build­ing. Though of­ten de­scribed as space tourism, with its cruise-ship im­pli­ca­tions, a suc­cess­ful Vir­gin Galac­tic launch could be rev­o­lu­tion­ary. In the long term, it could have the same ef­fect on travel as the steamship, which re­duced oceanic voy­ages from months to days, and air travel, which com­pressed those jour­neys even fur­ther. Fly­ing from Hong Kong to New York via sub-or­bital space would take only a cou­ple of hours in­stead of 16. The UK has al­ready ear­marked sev­eral sites for space­ports, and a large chunk of Vir­gin Galac­tic’s fund­ing by an Abu Dhabi sov­er­eign wealth fund is con­tin­gent on the con­struc­tion of space­ports in the United Arab Emi­rates.

In­vestors are in­trigued. Re­cent re­ports sug­gest Google is look­ing to pur­chase an eq­uity stake in Vir­gin Galac­tic. “There is a very strong cor­re­la­tion be­tween fund­ing and suc­cess in this in­dus­try,” says Branson. “I be­lieve Vir­gin Galac­tic’s ini­tial suc­cess will cre­ate an in­flux of pri­vate money to the sec­tor, which will re­sult in a pe­riod of rapid in­no­va­tion and trans­for­ma­tional change.”

His en­thu­si­asm is con­ta­gious—this is prob­a­bly the first time in two gen­er­a­tions that any­one has been so ex­cited about putting men and women into space. Branson says he re­mem­bers watch­ing the moon land­ing with his par­ents and imag­in­ing a time when space travel was com­mon­place. “It re­ally looked like we would all be go­ing—and I knew I would be first in line. How­ever, over the next few decades it be­came clear that most of us stood very lit­tle chance of go­ing; gov­ern­ments had no real in­ter­est in open­ing space up for ev­ery­one.”

So Branson has taken it upon him­self to change the sit­u­a­tion. “I had to do some­thing about it,” he says. Whether that’s vi­sion or van­ity will be­come clear when­ever six lucky peo­ple reach 50,000 feet.

thumbs up Richard Branson and en­gi­neer Burt Ru­tan in Spaceshiptwo

rev­o­lu­tion­ary road From top: Spaceshiptwo and its mother ship in their New Mex­ico hangar; Richard Branson

space odd­ity The mother ship lifts Spaceshiptwo to 50,000 feet, where it de­tatches and fires its rocket

desert storm Space­port Amer­ica was de­signed by Nor­man Foster and is sit­u­ated in the New Mex­ico desert

cloud nine From left: Sam Branson, David Clark and Richard Branson ex­pe­ri­ence mi­cro­grav­ity dur­ing a flight

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.