Flight of fancy

25 Oct 2006 by business traveller

Scheduled to take its first paying passengers into space sometime in 2008, the Virgin Galactic spaceship is certainly adventurous. Listening to the plans to take thousands of passengers into space, it was hard not to be impressed by the vision, even if you remain sceptical that it will ever happen. The technology remains largely untested, although Virgin has teamed up with Burt Ratan, who designed SpaceShipOne (funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen), which successfully became the first privately-manned rocket to reach space and so win the US$10 million Ansari X Prize for making two suborbital flights in five days.

SpaceShipTwo is larger than that first ship, but still seems small, holding just six passengers and two pilots. It hitches a ride on the back of a conventional aircraft – White Knight – which takes it up to an altitude of 50,000ft. From there the two craft disengage, and the spaceship then fires its rockets to achieve a final altitude of 100,000ft. A 15-minute space ride, including full weightlessness, is the highlight, as is viewing the curvature of the earth. Then it is back into seats for re-entry, before landing after the two-and-a-half-hour flight. The cost for those who have already signed up is a mere US$200,000.

The design is impressive, the wings like a shuttle cock helping to slow re-entry for the rocket, and an interior designed by Philippe Starck. A stunning spaceport is planned on a 27-square-mile site in the south of New Mexico, close to the White Sands Missile Range (the estimated completion date in 2010) in the Mojave Desert.

Interesting details include the possibility of your family riding up in White Knight, then watching as you jet off, and the fact that the interior cabin is lined with cameras, allowing you to have a record of every moment of the flight (including the 15 minutes of weightlessness).

The training for the flight will take three days initially, followed by a period where you take just one flight per week, after which the frequencies will be increased. There has yet to be a final decision on whether passengers will have to wear space suits in case of accidental depressurisation. What is certain is that all passengers will have to sign an insurance waiver.

If all this sounds less like the flight of a lifetime and more like pie in the sky, consider that thousands have already paid a deposit to join the list, and some 200 individuals have paid the full US$200,00 up front to ensure they are at the front of the queue (these are known as "founders"). Virgin estimates it will cost some US$250 million to get the project fully operational – not counting the US$250 million needed to build the spaceport (New Mexico is picking up that bill).

Of course, this being Virgin, publicity is an integral part of the process. There are plans in place for a reality show giving the winner the opporuntity to train and go into space, and there are discussions about a lottery competition for the chance to win this trip of a lifetime. Interestingly, there are also opportunities for Virgin's most frequent flyers (see below), though even with the new Virgin credit card giving up to four miles for every pound spent on Virgin flights, it would take a frequent flyer in Upper Class some time to reach the required two million miles.

Sir Richard Branson told Business Traveller that there was no inconsistency in his stance on cutting CO2 emissions from aviation and at the same time starting a business offering joy rides into space.

"The plane we are developing here will be the forerunner of the planes of tomorrow," he told Business Traveller. "It will be fast without damaging the environment, perhaps enabling flights of only a couple of hours to get to Australia, made of composite materials and using new fuels we are developing."

Alan Watts

If you are one of those frequent flyers who are frustrated at never being able to burn all those miles you have earned, one option might be to redeem them on a space flight.

Ironically, for all of us who rack up miles flying for work, the first man to redeem two million frequent flyer miles earned those miles through leisure travel. London businessman Alan Watts gained his miles flying to and from his holiday home in Florida with his family, as well as by spending on his Virgin credit card.

Refreshingly down to earth for a potential astronaut, this managing director of an electrical engineering company in Harrow said that initially he was planning on saving the miles for his retirement and visits to Florida. Then news about the offer came through, followed by a call from the Virgin marketing department. The final nudge came from one of his daughters. "If nothing else," she told him, "think of the view out of the window." The very antithesis of an adrenaline junkie – his pastimes are watching football and playing golf – Alan Watts told Business Traveller that his wife had been supportive of the idea of him going into space, but hadn't yet inquired about the chance of a companion ticket.

Since the Vigin Galactic programme is still in its infancy, Watts hasn't yet got a date as to when he'll fly, but given that there are currently only 450 people in the world who qualify as astronauts, he is confident of being in the first 1,000 (after Sir Richard Branson and his family, naturally).

For the record, Concorde flew at a maximum altitude of 50,000ft, and Virgin Galactic plans flights up to 120km. There are plans for a hotel next to the spaceport where passengers and their families can relax before and after the flight. Space tourism may be in its infancy, but if you could bottle the hype and use it as rocket fuel, Virgin Galactic would have no trouble getting off the ground.

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