If the hype is anything to be believed, in a matter of months the first commercial space passenger will have his or her brief “vacation” out of Earth’s atmosphere, more than 100 kilometres above our planet. Sir Richard Branson, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos are now in the final stretch to catapult fare paying tourists into space. Whilst it looks likely that Sir Richard’s Virgin Galactic – boosted by a recent USD1billion Saudi investment – may be first to cross the finish line, it seems to be a very tight race between the two front runners, Branson and Bezos. Both billionaires are hell-bent on being the first passenger over the Karman line (an altitude of 100km), which represents the official boundary between the earth’s atmosphere and outer space, and are using their vast fortunes to propel themselves there.
Whilst Branson recently said, “Elon is doing fantastically well getting cargo into space, and he’s building bigger and bigger rockets”, the British tycoon believes that the commercial travel space race is between himself and Bezos, “I think we’re both neck and neck as to who will put people into space first” Sir Richard said.
The 67-year-old Virgin boss has every intention of being the first to hitch a ride on his company’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle. Having invested heavily in commercial space travel since 2004 when he founded space tourism company Virgin Galactic, Branson has recently stepped-up his health regime and astronaut training in readiness for his first journey into space. “I’m going for astronaut training; I’m going for fitness training, centrifuge and other training, so that my body will hopefully cope well when I go to space” Branson said recently. As well as G-force training, which simulates the experience of lift-off and travel through Earth’s atmosphere, the Virgin founder is also taking part in gruelling centrifuge training, which recreates the various pressures the human body experiences during spaceflight.
Branson believes that the fitter you are the more you will enjoy a commercial spaceflight experience, which is great if you have time to play tennis four times a day (like him), but this is unlikely to be the case for most of the 700+ passengers who have put down substantial deposits to be one of the first into space aboard a commercial Virgin Galactic craft. Reports suggest that a number of celebrities including Brad Pitt, Ashton Kutcher, Angelina Jolie, Tom Hanks and Paris Hilton have each paid USD200,000 per person up-front. The price of a ticket was raised to USD250,000 five years ago. No doubt it will go up again once the programme is eventually underway.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo craft will carry six passengers and two pilots up past 328,000 feet altitude (100km), which is the point where astronaut wings are awarded. To get there, SpaceShipTwo will be carried to 50,000 feet altitude (15.5km) by its WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane. After separating, SpaceShipTwo will fire its rocket engine for 70 seconds to accelerate to 2,500 mph (4,000km/h). At this point passengers will be travelling at three and a half times the speed of sound. To put this into some sort of perspective, the maximum speed of an Airbus A380 passenger jet is 1,020km/h. When SpaceShipTwo reaches its highest altitude – 361,000 feet (110km) – passengers will experience five minutes of weightlessness. SpaceShipTwo’s variable-geometry rudders will be configured in “feathered” mode for re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere to increase drag and reduce heating from friction. At 70,000 feet (22.9km) the rudders will be de-feathered into a gliding configuration, enabling the craft to land on a conventional runway.
Earlier this year, Virgin Galactic completed the first successful powered supersonic test flight of its newest SpaceShipTwo craft, VSS Unity, following the 2014 break-up of its previous craft VSS Enterprise over the Californian desert in 2014, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other. Whilst the crash of VSS Enterprise was a massive setback – delaying the program by many years until a new craft could be built – Branson is confident that Virgin Galactic is back on track and it won’t be long now before it is putting people into space (www.virgingalactic.com).
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently became the world’s richest man, with an accumulated net worth of USD105 billion, so appears to have more resources than Branson to fund his space program, Blue Origin, which is currently Bezos’ top financial priority. “The only way that I can see (me) deploying this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel,” Bezos said recently. Currently funding Blue Origin to the tune of USD1billion of Amazon stock per year, Bezos intends to continue spending his staggering amount of personal wealth on funding his space program indefinitely. As opposed to Virgin Galactic Blue Origin is entirely privately funded, has been less public about its offering, and not announced ticket prices yet.
Just a couple of months ago, Blue Origin launched its New Shepard 2.0 space capsule to an altitude of almost 66 miles (107km), which was slightly higher than the company’s typical target of 62 miles (100km). Designed to fly six passengers on suborbital space tourism flights (trips that reach space but don’t orbit Earth) New Shepard 2.0 can also carry commercial payloads and experiments. The 530 cubic feet capsule has room for six paying passengers, with large windows to give occupants wide views of Earth from space, and “is large enough for you to float freely and turn weightless somersaults” Bezos’ company says. The capsule is carried over 100 kilometres above Earth on a rocket, from which it then detaches. “As the main engine cuts off, your capsule will separate from its booster and perfect stillness will surround you. You’ll release your harness and experience the freedom of weightlessness,” Blue Origin says. The capsule will land back onto earth slowed by parachutes, and can be re-used up to 100 times, according to Blue Origin. Two days before their flight, space tourists will travel to Blue Origin’s suborbital launch facility located in West Texas, to go through safety training, mission simulation and receive instructions on how to move in the weightless environment of space (www.blueorigin.com).
A sun-bleached stretch of the New Mexico desert, known as the Jornada del Muerto (the journey of the dead man), is an unlikely location for Earth’s first portal dedicated to commercial space exploration. Yet this barren location is where you’ll find the gorgeous USD200million Spaceport America, based on Foster + Partners’ stunning state-of-the-art design, which was conceptualised in close collaboration with Richard Branson. It really is a strikingly good-looking building – straight off the pages of Wallpaper*. There’s a two-mile long, three-and-a-half-foot deep concrete runway that continues into the distance as far as the eye can see. The futuristic Space Operations Center has acoustic tiling to prevent echoing. And there are multiple vast hangers designed specifically to accommodate Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier planes and SpaceShipTwo craft. But barring a few security personnel and ground staff, the first ever facility custom built as a hub for leisure travel to outer space is completely empty. You can literally hear a pin drop. This is because Spaceport America’s main tenant – Virgin Galactic – hasn’t taken up residence yet. When Branson’s team of more than 300 engineers, technicians and mission controllers will move from Mojave Air and Space Port in California to Spaceport America nobody knows, least of all the small New Mexico cities banking on its future. Given the Mexican state’s large and controversial investment in Spaceport America, its success or failure may well have a broad impact on the future of commercial space travel (www.spaceportamerica.com).
Space exploration has indeed come a very long way since Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon, on 20th July 1969. Almost half a century later, the 700 or so passengers who have paid hundreds of thousands of Dollars for their Virgin Galactic space experience must be hoping that it will soon to be their turn next, and that the whole thing isn’t just pie in the sky.