Virgin set to go Galactic?

Humans have been exploring mysterious lands and faraway civilizations for hundreds of years ever since they had the ability and knowledge to do so.  A curiosity and a desire to investigate the unknown has helped humans learn more about the world around us. Technology today has also developed to allow people to explore beyond the limits of the Earth and it is still continuing to develop. However, very few regular people have ever made this journey to space. “Space tourism” is a phrase that has been gaining momentum over the last decade.

With high profile investors such as Richard Branson and the Virgin Group developing a craft to bring average (albeit wealthy) people up to the edge of space, this idea of an “out of this world mini-break”  is no longer a futuristic fantasy but instead a contemporary certainty. The maiden flights onboard Virgin Galactic’s spaceplanes are scheduled to take place early next year (however this date has been changed around for a few years after multiple delays).  Regardless of the wait over 700 people are now ticket holders and are hoping to become space tourists paying just $250,000 for the pleasure.

Have a few hundred thousands pounds spare and need convincing….

To make space tourism a viable investment and to make it more cost-effective than traditional flights into Space, tourists will remain in low-earth orbit just crossing the Karman Line. This is the point where most people agree that space begins, just 100km from the ground. Also the commercial vehicles designed to carry these passengers will not take off from a launch pad like traditional rockets but instead will be released from a mother ship which will take off much like a traditional aeroplane releasing the spacecraft at 50 000ft allowing rocket engines to continue the remaining journey. Virgin Galactic is one of the most well-known space tourism companies and plans to send  Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Stephen Hawking (along with many others) up to space for a just a few hours and give them the opportunity to experience up to 6 minutes of weightlessness and reach 4 times the speed of sound traveling at almost 3000mph.

The quarter of a million dollar view Credit: NASA/JPL/UCSD/JSC

The quarter of a million dollar view (Image credit: NASA/JPL/UCSD/JSC)

 

 

Headquarters for Virgin Galactic are not located at any established launch site or space centre; instead they are based at the purpose built spaceport located in New Mexico.  This ultra-modern spaceport comprises a sleek building and runway and is surrounded by desert landscape. This spaceport although only accessible to the public via private tour companies, it has already hosted several test flights since 2006. Ticket holders also have the opportunity from now until their flight to attend media events and see the different models of space craft in design.  Some passengers however paid their deposits almost 10 years ago and still have not made it into Space despite initial claims that by 2015, 700 flights a year would be happening.  Also this year some customers have claimed in their contracts with Virgin Galactic that flights will aim to reach the 50 mile (80km) mark which is 20km below the Karman line. In the United States however, this is the marker that pilots have been awarded their astronaut wings.  However despite a few passengers asking for refunds for financial reasons, many are still keen to go where few have gone before.

 

The sleek ultra-modern base for Virgin Galactic Credit: www.virgingalactic.com

The sleek ultra-modern base for Virgin Galactic (Image credit: www.virgingalactic.com)

 

If you still considering an out of this world break, you will have to pass the medical criteria to make a space flight. However, Virgin has said over 90% of some intended customers passed early centrifuge training which allowed the astronauts to experience the G-force associated with the flight. They also endeavour to make this experience available to people on a spectrum of age and physical health and fitness levels. Before the much anticipated flight, there will be three days of pre-flight training to be ultimately prepared to enjoy all elements of the space flight including micro-gravity. The journey itself will see SpaceShipTwo carried to 50,000ft by the WhiteKnightTwo. After that rocket engines will fire for just over one minute taking the space craft to 2 500mph passing the Karman line. After enjoying the views of the Earth from windows at the side and above each seat and floating for 360 seconds, the craft will make its descent gliding from 70000ft to land safely on the runway.

Other commercial space flight vehicles are currently in operation albeit unmanned. These crafts like Space X’s Dragon spacecraft, first launched in 2012 has provided the International Space Station with supplies. Other private companies like Boeing are also working towards creating a new craft to reach low earth orbit.  These companies are working alongside NASA to act as chartered crafts to carry crews to space. Virgin Galactic still seems to be the leading competitor in providing mini breaks in outer space for the general public. Last week Virgin announced they will soon be resuming rocket powered test flights, the first since January of this year. Virgin’s plan to have a fleet of five SpaceShipTwos and two WhiteKnightTwo carriers still seems to be a little way of, but should they stick to these current timelines and all goes to plan, Richard Branson could be in Space within the year.

Test flights completed in January 2014

The space tourism industry despite having not sent very many people into space yet, is alive and buzzing.  With plans for many commercial spaceflights to take place this decade and Entrepreneur Richard Branson leading the way hoping to travel into Space in Spring 2015, hopefully many more people will actually get to take the giant leap for mankind.

(Article by Martina Redpath, Senior Education Support Officer)