The phrase “out of this world” is becoming reality in our lifetime; thanks to the Virgin Galactic Space company, the first set of commercial space tourism flights might be available by 2012! A ticket is going to cost you a maximum fee of £126,000 and 370 people so far, including the likes of Stephen Hawking and James Lovelock, have paid deposits of approximately £12, 700 each. Virgin’s Billionaire CEO Richard Branson, the main architect behind this project, has described it as a “breathtaking” adventure, signing a whopping 14 million pound deal with Mojave Aerospace Ventures to let his brainchild come to fruition. Branson thinks positively of this investment and has suggested that the deal’s price tag is expected to get reduced once public interest increases.
This October, the first solo flight of SpaceShipTwo was deemed a successful mission. The SS2 is the spiritual successor of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s SpaceShipOne, which made headlines in 2004 when it reached the atmospheric borders of space (with the aid of WhiteKnightOne, a carrier aircraft). Sadly, during its ascent, the SS1 swayed 90 degrees to the left and consequently diverted 20,000 feet away from its proposed path to the boundary. Improving upon its predecessor, the SS2 has been proposed to reach an altitude of 110 kilometres, and thus travel beyond the edge of space. It has a long way to go, however. With Pete Siebold and Mike Alsbury as pilot and co-pilot respectively, the recent SS2 spacecraft mission was only able to attain a height of 45,000 ft above ground. What they did manage to achieve was a smooth release of the SS2 from its jet-powered mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, and a successful landing on the runaway situated in Mojave, California, which is where most of the test flights will occur.
The spacecraft has also been designed to enable two travel modes: firstly to smoothly enter into the atmospheric surroundings of space, and, secondly, to switch to the requirements for flying back into the earth’s atmosphere. Yet, further meticulous testing of the rocket engine needs to take place before the SS2 can be considered for commercial flight; during the recent test mission, the rocket engine did not fire. As to be expected, this is still a work-in-progress.
The future SS2 will hold 6 passengers and 2 crew members, whereas the SS1 only had the capacity for 1 pilot and 2 passengers. To spend just minutes in actual suborbital space after a 3 and a half hour flight, the passengers will be required to carry out an extensive one week training course at the Virgin Space camp in the Mojave desert. But what does “suborbital” truly mean for a client about to embark on this journey? The answer to this points to the limitations of the SS2. Because it cannot achieve the required velocity to climb to earth’s orbit, the spaceship will only just about reach past the starting edge of space by the “skin of its teeth”. Even if the SS2 did reach our planet’s orbit, the period for which it could remain there would in itself be a much bigger challenge. Still, we have to bear in mind that this project will provide a very fundamental pathway for further technological advances in space travel. All we have to do now is wait.
Celebrations were in order on October the 22nd, as the runaway at the Virgin Galactic Spaceport in New Mexico was completed. SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo made appearances in the skies during this historic event, where even the Governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, was in attendance. Now, Branson is thinking of movements towards space hotels and commercial journeys to the moon!
Watch this space…
Bonnie E. Brown