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Last week, Virgin Galactic launched the first manned test flight of SpaceShipTwo, which will eventually take tourists into space for $200,000 a passenger. Unlike the $30 million space station trips offered by the Virginia-based Space Adventures, SpaceShipTwo’s flights will not put tourists in orbit.
Instead, it’ll launch them to a altitude of 68 miles above sea level, or six miles above the boundary of space. They'll officially be astronauts, and will have six minutes to unbuckle and float weightless about the cabin.
It’s an amazing opportunity, for sure. But six minutes of legitimate space time seems awfully skimpy for $200,000.
Around 300 people deposited $20,000 to reserve seats, but they've been kept waiting. In 2004, Virgin Galactic estimated that its flights would be launching in 2007, but they now say it’d be 2011 at the earliest. And they and partner Scaled Composites are cheerfully on their way to spending $400 million on the project.
So far, SpaceShipTwo hasn’t been to space, or even flown on its own. During last week’s flight, it remained attached to its mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo, while the crew ran tests on its systems. This isn’t to say Virgin Galactic is floundering about. They’ve got some pretty amazing stuff in the works, and when SpaceShipTwo does fly, here’s how it’s supposed to happen:
Six passengers and two crew members will suit up and enter the roomiest spaceship ever created. Judging from this computer simulation, it looks like each person will have about as much leg room as they would on a first class flight.
SpaceShipTwo will spend most of the trip nuzzled between the twin fuselages of WhiteKnightTwo, until it's released at 50,000 ft. After gliding for a few moments, SpaceShipTwo’s pilot will ignite its rocket. Within seconds, it’ll be headed towards space at 2,500 miles per hour.
The rocket will fire for just 70 seconds, giving the ship enough momentum to coast beyond the atmosphere to its apogee. It’s this coasting period that people will pay for. They’ll be weightless, and have a spectacular view of Earth. From 68 miles up, you can see the Earth’s curvature, and according to Virgin Galactic’s lofty promotional page, sense how fragile the layer between life and empty space really is.
SpaceShipTwo is the first in what Virgin Galactic hopes will be a fleet of commercial spacecraft. It’s designed to take two daily trips to space. If Galactic has enough paying customers, it should be possible. In part, this is because SpaceShipTwo’s suborbital reentry does not generate the massive amounts of heat orbital reentries do.
The key is its feathered reentry system, made possible because SpaceShipTwo’s wings can pivot. Before reentry, the wings will pivot up to a 65 degree angle, creating plenty of drag to slow it down -- like a feather floating to earth. When SpaceShipTwo descends to 50,000 feet, its wings will flatten out, and the ship will glide back to base.
The entire experience sounds exhilarating, but I wonder, what are the passengers really paying for?
It can’t be the experience of weightlessness. Companies like Zero G use diving airplanes to give you about as much weightless time for just $5,000. And it can’t be the travel experience. Upon reentering the atmosphere, SpaceShipTwo glides back to where it began, New Mexico’s Spaceport America.
I bet it’s about what space represents.
Although space flight takes thousands of people — engineers, developers and those at mission control — its mythology makes it seem like an individual’s journey. Space travel evokes thoughts of early astronauts, alone in a rocket that might not get them home, or this scene from The Right Stuff, in which Chuck Yeager flies his jet nearly straight up and almost dies just to get a glimpse of what’s beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
It’s pretty hard to romanticize SpaceShipTwo in that way. For one, pictures of it with WhiteKnightTwo remind me of mother whale cradling its baby as the little one learns to swim.
Then there are its passengers, who won’t be astronauts in the way we’re used to thinking of them. Scaled Composites engineers call them Brads and Angelinas. They won’t be our most brilliant pilots, or have undergone years of training. They’ll just have enough money to pay someone to take them beyond our atmosphere. When they return to Earth, they’ll receive a pair of congratulatory astronaut wings.
Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic, told NPR last year that suborbital space travel could eventually become inexpensive enough that more people could take short trips into space.
I wonder what will happen if these trips become commonplace. When technology makes impossible journeys like this mundane, they become a part of life. No one flies from New York to California because the actual flight is fun, but people do skydive because it’s an exhilarating experience. Perhaps this type of space travel won’t symbolize mankind’s unflagging progress, but instead will be a new kind of extreme sport.
For its part, Virgin Galactic says it’s doing everything it can to make flights safe, but there's no guarantees with something like this. In 2008, Whitehorn said their ships will be as safe as airliners in the 1920s. Perhaps this element of danger is a plus in the eyes of the potential astronauts.
As safe as skydiving might be, part of the appeal is the danger that comes with being adventurous. There’s always the chance that the chute won’t open.