Any cachet attached to the potential of space tourism was placed in dire straits when N’Sync heartthrob Lance Bass signed up to hitch a ride on a manned Russian rocket to the International Space Station.
Fortu-nately, he’s no longer the focal point of the trend (with the exception of his role as World Space Week Youth Spokesperson).
Two years after Bass’s cosmonaut caper, commercial space travel is on the near horizon, and Virgin, that company that used to just be a record label, is already lining up customers. On September 27, 2004, CEO Sir Richard Branson, a.k.a. the Rebel Billionaire, announced plans for the first commercial suborbital space line, Virgin Galactic, after signing a technology licensing deal that could be worth more than $20 million over the next 15 years with Paul G. Allen’s Mojave Aerospace Ventures. The deal “is just the start of what we believe will be a new era in the history of mankind, one day making the affordable exploration of space by human beings a real possibility,” said a modest Branson. Virgin is planning to build as many as five new versions of MAV’s SpaceShipOne, and the company expects to spend more than $100 million doing so.
The creatively titled SpaceShipOne, by aircraft designer Burt Rutan, won the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million cash award given to the first team to complete a privately funded, built, and launched spaceship that can carry three people (or weight equivalent), return to earth, and then repeat the same within two weeks. Rutan’s design is a clever little craft that transforms from a space plane into a shuttlecock as it returns to earth, drifting back through the atmosphere without overheating. It then metamorphoses back into a conventional aircraft shape to land. The Galatic ship, which will hold five passengers and one pilot, runs on a fuel of nitrous oxide and rubber, just like SpaceShipOne.
Here’s the $190,000 catch: Virgin’s proposed space trip lasts a mere two to three hours. (It’s a relative bargain, however, as the first two space tourists, American Dennis Tito and South African Mark Shuttleworth, paid more than $14 million each for their sojourn to the space station.) It will begin on a runway; the spaceship is attached underneath the White Knight mother ship, and at around ten miles above sea level, it will be released into the atmosphere. The spaceship’s rocket engine fires it almost vertically to Mach 1 (600 mph) in under ten seconds, and then it takes off into space at over three times the speed of sound. It is planned that the in-flight entertainment tune of David Bowie’s Space Oddity will accompany the voyagers. Once in space, passengers may be invited to float around the cabin for three to five minutes and enjoy the view.The Virgin Galactic experience could likely include a six-day package of medical preparation and G-tolerance training, among other things, as well as a welcome-back-to-earth gala dinner where space tourists may receive astronaut wings as a souvenir. Virgin is already signing up dilettantes—astronauts, rather—marketing the package as a unique spiritual experience. The maiden voyage of the V.S.S. Enterprise, sans Captain Kirk and Spock, is expected to take place in early 2007, and will begin with one flight a week launched from the Mojave Desert.