It could be called any number of things from the unthinkable made real to perhaps the most extreme version of travel possible but space tourism has arrived and with it, a number of questions, concerns, and curiosities.
What may have been considered by many a decade ago as a nice fantasy for sci-fi novels and films, has quickly become a very real possibility with as many as 5 space tourism companies aggressively competing to be the first to send tourists into space.
Spaceflight Company founder Richard Branson has been incredibly vocal that not only is space tourism viable, it is also on the horizon (ha) with an ambitious goal of launching before the end of 2018. Launching from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, Branson intends to be the first one to launch into space followed by flights packed with astronauts. The idea is that since the shuttle is reusable, the turnaround time will be as little as every 4 days which would generate a handsome payout and a solid business plan.
Currently, Branson is neck and neck with Blue Origin (and Amazon) founder Jeff Bezos but declares avidly that it's not a race and that both companies should be considered a success if they make it to space. Diplomacy aside, it's quite clear from the impressive investments and goal posts that Branson hopes to be the first to win this 'non-race' race. While we all anticipate this exciting historical event, we've dug into some interesting facts about the Virgin Galactic mission, so keep reading!
According to the official NASA website in order to be a qualified as an astronaut you must have a degree in engineering, biological science, computer science or mathematics, in addition to 3 years of professional post-degree experience OR 1000 hours jet-pilot-in-command time, AND the ability to pass a NASA physical with 20/20 vision to boot.
According to Spaceflight Company, in order to qualify as an astronaut, you must have a quarter of a million dollars and physically reach the boundary between earth and space to enter the club. They have been quoted on the record claiming that all passengers of the SpaceShipTwo will earn official astronaut status by the US government once reaching the 50-mile mark.
The world's largest all carbon SpaceShipTwo starts its ascension attached to mothership WhiteKnightTwo and is carried to an altitude of 50,000 feet where it is dropped for 70 seconds before the rocket motor is triggered, sending it to 62 miles above Earth where the technical border of space begins. The idea of a reusable shuttle serves as a major pillar for the business model seeing as it can complete 2 flights a day, making this type of space exploration as routine as a round-trip ticket to Europe.
That being said, safety is a primary concern with testing never stopping and each flight being considered a 'test flight' regardless of Branson's ultimate goal of normalizing space travel and tourism.
Whether you are a window or aisle seat passenger on a plane says a lot about you as a person. Do you value the vista over the convenience and extra legroom of the aisle? In the case of the SpaceShipTwo, there is no need to overthink it. Each and every seat will give passengers an unprecedented view of space for 10 miles in each direction with each passenger having 13-inch windows as well as 17-inch 'skylight' like windows above each reclining seat.
When you hit that 5 minutes of weightlessness, something tells us the boundaries will go out the window as you float into the aisle anyways. For the rest of the time, you may as well sit back and enjoy the (quarter of) a million dollar view.
Though serial entrepreneur Richard Branson is better known for his company that provides everything from mobile phones to music venue sponsorship, it seems he has always been fascinated by flight itself. In 1987 Branson set a Guinness World Record for the fastest Atlantic Ocean crossing in a hot air balloon at the age of 36.
He saw floating the Virgin Atlantic Flyer balloon as a great way to get publicity for his airline and has been famously known as someone who likes to push the boundaries of what is possible. Suddenly his interest in space tourism seems to make a heck of a lot of sense...
As reported by ArabianBusiness.com Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments (under Mubadala) had acquired a 31.8% stake in Virgin Galactic back in 2010. Since then they have signed a partnership deal and invested $1 billion dollars in the space venture company.
At the time of the announcement of this partnership in later 2017 Branson was quoted saying "This investment will enable us to develop the next generation of satellite launches and accelerate our program for point-to-point supersonic space travel.”
Point-to-point unlike the current undertaking of SpaceShipTwo refers to Branson's goal of speedier travel on earth using suborbital rockets. The details surrounding what Saudi Arabia gets in return for its hefty investment but some points have been made about an initiative to diversify away from oil and towards a more varied and innovative economy by 2030.
Perhaps a more widely known and accepted fact is the hefty price tag for a seat aboard the shuttle. The first space tourists to venture to space for entertainment were those aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2001 costing 20 million (according to space.com).
Branson has explained that the price of the first flights, while steep at $250,000, will be expected to go down as it becomes more routine comparing it to the hefty price tag of early trans-Atlantic flights.
In 1939, a one-way coach seat between New York and England cost the equivalent of $47,000 in today’s dollars (techcrunch.com).
This isn't your typical waitlist. It's not like getting your name on the list for the opening of that hip new ramen fusion bar in Soho. This is a ticket to see SPACE and for those who have the money, there was no time to waste. Several celebrities with money to burn added their name to list including the likes of Katy Perry, Tom Hanks, and Ashton Kutcher.
The total waitlist to date has exceeded 700 hopeful space tourists. Compare this to the 536 people (total!) who have ever been to space ever in the whole history of space travel EVER.
The SpaceFlight Founder has been accused of providing an escapist fantasy to the folks who can afford it with an emphasis on you know, Armageddon and the ability to shuttle off to space to avoid any harm. Well, Sir Branson just doesn't seem to see it that way.
Quite conversely he has emphasized the importance of a minimal ecological footprint of this endeavor. He sees space travel in a more humanitarian light as a way for people to put in perspective the human experience and our 'oneness' when they see Earth from afar.
Beth Moses, the Chief Astronaut Instructor on duty for Spaceflight Company was recently quoted saying in a piece done by astronomy.com, "I think space and space travel and astronomy bring out the best in humanity, and I really feel it’s a great unifying force.”
Ace test pilot Mark Stucky has all the qualifications and experience that make him the perfect fit for the job but even though it was always his dream to be an astronaut, there was a time in his life where it didn't seem his dream would come true.
Born and raised in Kansas to Mennonite parents, his father Paul Stucky believed his dream to be an impossibility since most astronauts were extracted from the military and his father was adamantly opposed to the idea of his son serving. Stucky became enthralled with hang gliding, even performing a Guerrilla style stunt at the half-time show of a football game.
Eventually, Stucky rebelled and joined the Marines and was accepted into flight school. After two failed applications to NASA, he was accepted as a test pilot in the early '90s.
Sir Richard Branson has been putting the cart before the horse for quite some time. He has been famously anticipating his first flight to space for years and has been making some pretty ambitious claims in interviews since Spaceflight Company's inception.
Whether it's marketing or genuine optimism, British satirical magazine Private Eye (as reported by Business Insider) was able to count as many as 15 supposed push off dates and their subsequent delays as announced by Branson.
One thing is for certain, despite Branson's hopes and desires - the team is prioritizing a safe and stable mission- as it should be.
Space Shuttle Discovery, not unlikes SpaceShipTwo was also designed to be reused for multiple missions. While Space Shuttle Discovery did make it as the 100th mission in the history of the shuttle program in 2000 (according to airandspace.si), it did not make it past 39 of its own launches.
With the highest crew count of 251 and the Shuttle's varied experience flying every possible mission available, the Discovery made plenty of headlines in its own right.
It now rests securely as a treasured piece of space history at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
In 2014, during the 4th rocket-powered test flight in California, tragedy struck and caused SpaceShipTwo to decombust at 50,000 feet above sea level.
Miraculously, Peter Siebold was able to survive a 10-mile fall from the sky where temperatures are as cold as -60 and the speed alone can rip off any limbs that aren't immediately tucked in as you potentially lose consciousness.
Siebold survived with only a shoulder injury. Sadly co-pilot Mike Alsbury was not able to separate from the broken plane and was not as lucky.
Despite the reporting that stated it was a case of human error and not the mechanics of the shuttle itself, it still led to many people on the waitlist to lose their nerve and cancel their trip to space.
After the 2014 tragedy, a number of people began to take issue with Branson's determination to break the mould with space travel.
Wired magazine ran a headline that read "Space Tourism Isn't Worth Dying For." Many questioned whether the team was being pressured to launch by Branson's need for speed rather than taking all the required safety measures for those involved.
While space exploration can be an exciting endeavour and one that requires immense investment, it became subject to debate whether it was ethical to describe it as 'a bad day'. Many began to question the true motive behind this endeavour altogether.
This past summer Branson struck a deal with two of Italy's largest Aerospace companies. If all goes to plan than The Spaceflight Company could be launching from Italy's Grottaglie Spaceport (in the South or heel of the boot). The idea is that they will construct an entirely new spaceplane that will be used solely for launches happening from Italy.
The technology will be a product of a collaboration between the 3 space companies and the shuttle that results will likely be used to conduct experiments that require high-altitude or gravity-less environments.
Branson's excitement can be summed up in the following quote, “From the Renaissance to modern space science, Italy has always been a natural home to great innovators and breakthrough ideas which have shaped the human experience. I believe Italy’s vision, which has led to this collaboration with our Virgin space companies, will provide a real impetus as we strive to open space for the benefit of life on Earth” (The Verge).
While it's not an official race and everyone is being quite gentlemanly about the whole thing the reality is - someone will be first to launch regular (albeit rich) humans into space and it will either be Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos or Sir Richard Branson.
Both men are anticipating a launch before the year-end and as we approach 2019 and do some quick math, that means 3 weeks, people! So tensions are certainly mounting as these two billionaires battle for the bragging rights to say that they were the first to send space tourists (people) into the unknown which would inevitably go down in the history books. The space race is on like donkey kong!
Ya know, just a casual $50K. I mean that's basically pocket change for the wealthy. For us normal human travellers it could take years in order to save for such an extravagance seeing as how they definitely don't take points or Airmiles (yet) - but after all, it is space.
For all those travellers out there who prefer a more bespoke experience, you don't really get much farther off the beaten path than taking a plane to space. Who knows, if space tourism really takes off (ha), our grandkids' grandkids might be able to book a quick visit to space on Expedia, you know, to get away from it all.
It seems like just about everyone is trying to get behind the latest space tourism craze and Scotland is no exception! The government announced that these investments are in part to a larger strategy for a national space program and that it hopes to be the first launching place for all of mainland Europe.
According to Reuters, Britain’s space industry is growing four times faster than the rest of the UK economy and the country has a 7 percent share of the global space industry - with all the bad press of Brexit, this is something to celebrate.
Planned launches for 2020 could mean a boom in jobs and the economy.
Not Tom Hanks, not Harrison Ford. No A-list celebrity has been offered a personal invite aboard the Virgin Galactic by Richard Branson himself.
An important influence on the study of the skies, Stephen Hawking was most notable for his theories of cosmology, relativity and quantum gravity, and black holes. Naturally, his lifelong dream was to be able to one day visit outer space. After the invitation from Branson, he began training, even undertaking a gravity-less flight in preparation with the hopes that his health would uphold long enough for him to realize this dream.
Sadly, Stephen passed in early 2018 and was never able to take that flight.
Let's all take a moment to think about the intensity of 2300 miles/hour in 8 seconds. It's hard to imagine.
For the majority of that, the SpaceShuttleTwo will be strapped to the WhiteKnightTwo as it climbs to 45,000 feet. Once released, the SpaceShipTwo will shoot upwards at almost a ninety-degree angle where passengers will be able to release their safety belts and experience weightlessness for about 15 minutes.
While floating around the cabin pilots will help them to identify popular celestial bodies, terrestrial landmarks and stunning vistas of Earth. Obviously, this travel requires a certain level of physical fitness and training to be done safely which brings us to our next point...
It's not possible to endure the physical flight unless having been through some semblance of training especially for first timers of the sub-orbital variety. The training is done over a solid two days that includes a theoretical portion as well as a very physical practical portion that involves 6 different simulators in NASTAR's STS-400.
Different varieties of G-Force are felt against the chest and the top of the head so that passengers can be better prepared for the real deal in-flight.
The G-Force can be anywhere from 3 - 6 Gs during their expedition - that's the equivalent to 3 or 6 times your body weight pushed on you. Passengers are trained on breathing techniques to support their lung capacity and ability to breathe as well as the flexing of muscles to keep blood flow regular.
While not everyone is suited to this type of travel, Branson's team estimates 80% of the population will be healthy enough to fly to space.
The picture above is ironically that of a popular child's arcade located in Portland, Oregon. A futuristic spin on the classic past time of video games. No one could have predicted that spaceports would become as common as a regular old airport with the first spaceport built as the Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan and it remains the largest to this day.
Other countries like Japan, India and Russia were quick to follow suit. Some would say that the advancement of spaceports have outpaced the need to go to space as most of their voyages have been conspired with a heavy dose of hope and not much follow through.
The Federal Aviation Administration has licensed spaceports in Texas, Florida, California, Alaska, Virginia, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Colorado. Many who invested the time in completing these developments had high hopes that routine launches would be our reality and that the space tourism industry would have boomed by now.
Arguably these spaceports provide an incentive for space-minded companies to then set up shop nearby and thereby it is good for the economy even if they see to be collecting dust for the minute. Perhaps this is the true mark of the industries unflappable optimism and dedication despite all evidence that these expensive operations are a sinkhole for tax dollars.
Of course, going on a sub-orbital mission is cool, but have you ever seen an International Space Station? If NASA gets its way, you might just get your very own cribs-style version where you can visit the ISS a mere 254 miles above the earth. Sound tempting?
Well, NASA thinks the proceeds from such a mission could prove fruitful for the agency's research and development. If SpaceX and Boeing are able to provide transportation for astronauts it would mean NASA could stop paying high-price fees to board Russia's Soyuz missions. It would also use those seats to rent out to high-flying hopefuls on non-crucial missions where they could visit the ISS for a few weeks... for the right price.
Originally Bitcoin was created anonymously as an experimental form of money that exists solely on the internet, and thereby not regulated by any central authority or government body. Branson has been quoted as saying that his company is one of the future and of innovation so that it seemed like a natural choice to allow passengers to pay with what he deems a forward-thinking regular currency replacement.
In fact, the Winklevoss twins, dearly remembered for their volatile relationship portrayal with Zuckerberg, have paid in full for their flight with Bitcoin. They see it as an investment and that it should demonstrate their full support of the space tourism company. They look forward to boarding the shuttle as astronauts 700 and 701.
Like every cook should taste the soup before serving it to others, Branson has decided that he will be the first-ever passenger to experience the space flight masterpiece once it's truly complete. It's not for a shortage of interest either that he feels compelled to fill the seats as the waitlist for takeoff is roughly 700 people long!
Sir Richard Branson has already begun his rigorous training routine and expects to take flight in the next few short weeks. If he succeeds he will be one of the few 'first' space tourists on his own shuttle. Just another day at the office we suppose...
References: theverge.com, guinnessworldrecords, techcrunch.com, thenewyorker.com, CNN Business, Popular Science