10 years ago,
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