“Space is Virgin territory” are the words plastered across Richard Branson’s website, and never before have the words been so accurate: since announcing the collaboration with Mojave Space Adventures and aviation genius Burt Rutan, Branson’s vision of a commercial space-line has slowly become cemented into reality. Within the next 4 years, Virgin Galactic is set to become the ethereal trip of a lifetime.
Slowly developing from a futuristic fancy in the back of the transport mogul’s mind, Virgin Galactic was originally registered as a company in March 1999 – and remained dormant until July 2002 when an agreement with Rutan was formed. At the time the aeronautical engineer was working with Paul Allen-funded company ‘Scaled Composites’ to create SpaceShipOne, a sub-orbital spaceplane, for the Ansari X-Prize. Once Virgin caught wind of the project they struck an agreement, that if SpaceShipOne was successful they would license the technology and aim to develop a version of the spaceplane fit for commercial use. In 2004 Rutan’s creation competed for the Ansari X-Prize, flying 100km into the atmosphere and stunning all onlookers. Needless to say, Virgin was on board.
The following year it was announced that SpaceShipTwo would have 6 passenger seats in addition to space for the 2 pilots, plenty of room for floating around in the zero gravity atmosphere, and large windows to look over at the edge of the spherical world the passengers have temporarily left behind. Over the next few years Virgin Galactic moved on leaps and bounds to design and build brand new technology to create the world’s first air-launched commercial flight into space. Branson has marked this venture: “a new era in the history of mankind… making the affordable exploration of space by human beings a real possibility.”
For the future non-professional astronauts, as they have been dubbed, the experience will be a long weekend away – and no doubt the furthest they have ever travelled from home. Starting with two days of preparation and training, the passengers have a chance to bond with each other and the crew leading up to the eagerly anticipated launch day. On the long-awaited day they will be kitted up with their space suits (which are more jet-pilot come black ops agent than Neil Armstrong-esque) and patiently take their place on the spacecraft.
Still attached to the air-launcher, the ‘Virgin Mother Ship’ climbs to 50,000ft before the rocket is released. After a few heart-wrenching seconds of deathly silence, the rocket engine will ignite and continue to climb into the heavens at 3000 mph (four times the speed of sound). As the rocket breaks through the blue skies into blackness it shuts down, leaving the now weightless passengers to float above their seats as they watch the world turning beneath them. The rocket then re-enters the atmosphere and gently returns to earth.
A previously exclusive phenomenon, we can only reference films and documentaries to even begin to imagine witnessing such an experience in the flesh. However the feeling of total weightlessness is a feeling which has been available to the public for some years already, through the zero gravity experience.
‘Zero Gravity Corporation’ is a space entertainment and tourism company offering a flight which uses special acrobatic manoeuvres to achieve a sense of zero gravity within the aircraft. Based around the science of a centrifugal force (the force which causes an object moving in a circular motion to fly away from the centre) the plane temporarily out-smarts gravity. Climbing up towards the horizon at a 45 degree angle the plane reaches 34,000 ft whilst the speed works to create a pull 1.8 times gravity – making the passengers weigh nearly twice their usual weight.
As the plane pulls out of the angle it moves in an arc, and the centrifugal force causing the passengers to move away from the ground cancels out the gravitational force pulling them down towards it: for this brief moment of time the passengers are weightless, floating around the modified aircraft as though they are lost in space. Lasting for 20-30 seconds at a time, the manoeuvre is repeated 12-15 times per session.
Unlike the meticulous preparation stages of the Galactic journey, the preparation for this flight is considerably more brief, and the entire day lasts around five hours. Before the flight the passengers and crew pose outside of the seemingly ordinary aeroplane for a team photograph, which they are later rewarded with in a ‘Regravitation Celebration’ along with a certificate and refreshments, and plenty of time to share their experience with one another.
Available in Florida, California and Las Vegas, the zero gravity flight starts at $4,950 per passenger. This is considerably cheaper than the Virgin Galactic venture – however does lack the ethereal perks that Branson provides with his revolutionary enterprise.
Despite not being ready for take-off until 2016, Virgin have already received 529 deposits – and counting. This doesn’t come cheaply, with most deposits requiring the full payment. One seat on the Virgin Mother Ship would set you back $200,000 (roughly £124,000) and to hire the entire 6 seater ship comes at a discounted price of $1 million (around $622,000). However when compared to the millions it costs to launch a NASA rocket ship, the fee to live out the dream of flying into space seems remarkably reasonable. It really is one small step for man, and a giant leap for mankind.