Space Travel: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two
”We see the stars, and we want them,” science fiction icon Ray Bradbury once said, and a visionary entrepreneur, whose own star-bound longings were sparked watching the moon landing from his parents’ sofa, intends to be the first of hundreds—eventually hundreds of thousands—of ordinary dreamers who venture into the heavens. Sir Richard Branson, whose knack for turning his passions into profitable enterprises is unmatched, will board SpaceShipTwo with his two grown children for Virgin Galactic’s inaugural suborbital flight, likely in 2014. Virgin Group’s founder and chairman tells those he invites to follow: “I’ve had some incredible adventures in my lifetime, and space is sure to be the greatest one of all.”
Already, more would-be astronauts have purchased or made deposits toward $200,000 tickets than the total number of individuals—528—who have ever flown into space. “From the day we announced the company, people immediately saw the spaceflight as an opportunity for romance,” says Virgin Galactic’s Commercial Director Stephen Attenborough, who reports couples from around the world have made reservations for two. These pioneers “are probably most intrigued and seduced by the prospect of looking down at Earth from the blackness of space in a zero gravity environment,” he shares. “We know from the accounts of professional astronauts that this is a profound, perception-altering moment.”
Space travelers will spend three pre-flight days at Spaceport America in New Mexico reviewing procedures, bonding and preparing for this life-changing experience. The world’s first commercial spaceline aims to operate “the safest space vehicle in history,” Attenborough assures. Although travelers should be in average or better health, the rigors will be unlike those experienced by traditional astronauts, whose missions were serious work, not play.
Centrifuge training simulates gravity’s pull during launch and re-entry, and instruction will also focus on making the most of microgravity: Weightlessness occurs for just a handful of surreal minutes. It takes about an hour for carrier craft WhiteKnightTwo to reach 50,000 feet, then a mere 30 seconds from the time SpaceShipTwo is released and its rocket ignited for it to hurtle vertically at three and a half times the speed of sound. When the motor is switched off, all six passengers can unbuckle and float around the cabin.
Ready for liftoff? You’re too late to book the first space honeymoon, and Virgin Galactic has already received serious inquiries about weddings in space, too. Attenborough reveals the inevitable “62-Mile-High Club” inquiries have been “turned down for now,” but it’s “an interesting market for the future.”
When Branson says, “Space is a Virgin territory,” he’s thinking more profoundly about the propagation of humanity. Bradbury believed: “If we make landfall on another star system, we become immortal.” Once space is an affordable place to travel, conduct research, and do business, that quest is no longer far-fetched.
“Access to space will only matter more as we seek to meet some of the big challenges ahead down here on Earth,” asserts Attenborough. “Starting to look seriously at the potential of the world outside our world as a means of supporting the needs of a burgeoning global population living on an exhausted and fragile planet won’t solve everything—but it will help.”
> Written by Kim Knox Beckius
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