The world is getting smaller – more and more people can afford to go to increasingly exotic destinations with relative ease. There is, as Nick Leader discovers, only one place left to travel to for those who are after the ultimate getaway: space
If things stay on course, we are less than two years away from the media event of the decade or, quite possibly, the century. In 2009 Virgin Galactic, the commercial space line founded by Sir Richard Branson, is scheduled to launch its inaugural spaceflight from Spaceport America in the Mojave desert, New Mexico.
Forget Formula 1 test drives or jet-fighter simulations, Virgin Galactic is offering the ultimate experience: space tourism. For many space enthusiasts, like British film-maker George Duffield, ticket buyer number 112, the opportunity to experience space travel has been a lifelong ambition. Duffield read about the project in a newspaper article. "When Virgin Galactic launched, I was there, banging on the door."
With tickets priced at $200,000, the company already has over 200 "astronauts" signed up – a passenger list that makes up one of the most exclusive networking clubs in the world. At the Virgin Galactic headquarters in London's Leicester Square, 26-year-old American Dave Clark, whose job it is to sell the tickets to space, explains how Virgin Galactic hold "parties, dinners and events throughout the world, every few months. It's a very powerful and very interesting network to be a part of."
As many of the ticket holders are millionaire entrepreneurs, business opportunities come up frequently. "Our client list is incredible," explains Clark. "You'd recognise over half the names, but obviously we have to keep it quiet." Branson himself has already made several business deals with those on the list. As Clark says with a wry smile, "when Richard is around, things tend to happen."
The ticket system has been divided into three tiers. The "Founders" are made up of the first one hundred people, each of whom were selected by invitation. They have already paid the full $200,000 up front and the tickets have sold out. The next 400 tickets have gone to the "Pioneers", who have placed deposits ranging from $100,000 to $175,000. And lastly are the "Voyagers" who have only had to pay $20,000 to secure their seat. Ticket holders in these tiers can expect to be among the first 1,000 people to ever enter space as a tourist.
Virgin Galactic isn't the first company to launch tourists into space. On 28 April 2001, the Russian Space Agency took American businessman Denis Titto to their International Space Station (ISS) for a seven-day stay. Titto and a handful of subsequent "spaceflight participants" paid in excess of $20 million each. And with the price now fixed at $30 million for 10 days in space, this is an option for only the smallest minority. "I would love to do that 10-day trip with those billionaires, but for me that's just crazy money," explains Duffield.
What sets Virgin Galactic apart is they are the first privately run company to have successfully sent a human being into space. On 4 October 2004, they launched the historic flight of SpaceShipOne, designed by rocket scientist Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites. SpaceShipOne, flown by pilot Brian Binnie, reached and then surpassed an altitude of 62 miles, known as the Karman line, the arbitrarily defined boundary of space. Crudely speaking, the flight was more of a hop than an exploration into space, but for achieving this flight Virgin Galactic won the Ansari X PRIZE, aimed at spurring development of low-cost spaceflight. It was the perfect match between the entrepreneurial business leader and adventurer Branson and the pioneering rocket scientist Rutan, who enjoys the distinction of having not one but two planes in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC: SpaceShipOne and the Rutan Voyager, the first airplane to fly non-stop around the world.
Branson has created over 360 different companies under the Virgin brand. From records labels to airlines, trains to technology companies, he has made his name by being quick to spot and promote new business opportunities, often starring in his own promotional stunts. Since 1985 he has steadily sought new world record attempts in boat, hot air balloon and amphibious cars, feeding his desire for adventure while shrewdly highlighting the Virgin brand.
Virgin Galactic was a logical step for Branson, whose fascination with space travel dates to the first moon landing: "I can clearly remember sitting with my mum and my dad and my two sisters in our family home in England back in 1969 and watching those live black and white pictures. I was spellbound," he says.
The deal Virgin Galactic signed with Scaled Composites, worth up to a reported $21 million, was to deliver five suborbital tourist spaceships based on a scaled up version of SpaceShipOne. These new spacecrafts will be big enough to hold two pilots in the cockpit and six passengers in the main hull.
Once in space the passengers will experience up to six minutes of weightlessness before the ship reaches the apogee of its flight and begins its re-entry to earth. The total flight time from take-off to landing will be roughly two and half-hours, and will include breathtaking views of earth and space 1,000 miles in every direction.
Construction of the prototype SpaceShipTwo began in 2005 and this past January Branson and Scaled Composites presented their finished ship to the media in New York. From June of this year they will begin the required 50 test flights before being ready in 2009 to take paying customers. Typically, Branson has announced he will be taking his family with him on the inaugural flight.
Like any true pioneer enterprise, the Virgin Galactic mission has not been without risk. Last year three workers at Rutan's Scaled Composites were killed while watching a propulsion system test. That accident is still under review but it's important to note it was of an industrial nature and not directly related to spaceflight. The accident "hasn't affected Virgin Galactic as a business," explained company president Will Whitethorn. "It hasn't put a stop to anything." Virgin Galactic has pressed on with their test flights and ticket sales have continued to rise.
If Branson's bold venture succeeds, he will have revolutionised space travel, opening a previously closed world to the public, or at least to those rich and brave enough to sign on.
Click here to read our web exclusive: Learn more about the technology behind the SpaceShipTwo and the training that all potential tourists must undergo.