Thu, Jun 21, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Virgin Galactic hoping space tourism will finally take off

Virgin Galactic has unveiled plans to boldly go where no one has gone before — an entirely new tourism market in outer space

By Robin McKie  /  The Observer, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

At the west end of Pall Mall, among London’s most venerable and old-fashioned gentlemen’s clubs, a smart new office opened its doors to the public earlier this year.

Its front window proclaims, in large letters, the simple motto: “Space is Virgin Territory.” Here, amid the trappings of the past, is travel’s future.

Inside the office, young men and women are busy working at computers and telephones, while decorators put the finishing touches to plush, glass-partitioned rooms. These are the new UK headquarters of Virgin Galactic, which Richard Branson hopes will create an entirely new tourism market — in outer space.

In one room, a photograph of the Earth covers two walls. In another, there are huge pictures of the company’s spacecraft taking off and landing at its launch base in New Mexico.

“Things are going incredibly well,” said Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic’s commercial director. “These are computer graphics images, but next year we hope to replace them with photographs of the real thing — our first commercial flights into outer space.”

It has cost Branson more than £162 million (US$255 million) to design and build a fleet of WhiteKnightTwo motherships and smaller SpaceShipTwo planes, which will whisk customers more than 100km above the Earth’s surface, where our planet’s atmosphere ends and space begins. The technology is striking and innovative.

Strapped to the belly of a jet-powered mothership, each spaceplane — carrying two pilots and six passengers — will take off from a runway, ascending until it reaches an altitude of 15km. There will be a stomach-churning lurch as the spaceplane is released, its rocket engine will ignite, and passengers will be rammed back in their seats as the craft soars upwards at a speed of more than 4,000kph. Outside, the blue sky will turn black as the craft hurtles out of the atmosphere.

After 90 seconds, the pilot will cut the engine and the passengers will coast in weightless silence as their spaceplane glides into space. More than 100km below, the curve of the Earth will be clearly visible against the dark background of space.

Passengers will have six or seven minutes to float round the cabin and indulge in an ecstasy of camera-clicking, before their ship starts to arc downwards. Its stubby wings will then be pointed upwards to turn the craft into a giant shuttlecock that will “flutter” back to Earth.

Back down at an altitude of about 15km, its wings will be returned to their original configuration and the craft will glide to an airport landing. The day of the space tourist will have arrived.

Among those booked on Virgin Galactic’s first mission are Branson, his son Sam and daughter Holly. Angelina Jolie is scheduled for an early flight, as is her partner, Brad Pitt. Others booking the £125,000 journey include Ashton Kutcher, Formula 1 drivers Rubens Barrichello and Niki Lauda, and scientists James Lovelock and Stephen Hawking. Britain’s Princess Beatrice and Paris Hilton also make appearances on early flight schedules.

Virgin Galactic — which Branson describes as “by far and away my boldest venture” — has so far received more than £64 million in deposits from 520 customers who want to escape the surly bonds of Earth, albeit for a very short period of time. The first flights are scheduled for the end of next year, a date that puts Virgin Galactic in pole position in the race to commercialize space, but Branson is not without competition, as will be apparent this week in London when delegates gather for the third European conference on space tourism.

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