The astronauts ate muffins in the Mojave Desert this morning. They needed a whole lot of muffins, mostly because there were a whole lot of astronauts—300 or so, enough that they had to be brought in aboard a caravan of busses. They were here to see their spacecraft—known by the prosaic name SpaceShipTwo—and hear from the man who dreamed it up, known by the far more familiar name Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, a company built from the ground up for the principle purpose of democratizing space.
The crowd that gathered to listen to Branson today was an eclectic group: There was John Graves of Bethesda, Md., a 59-year old grandfather and the CEO of Netcomm, who wants to go into space for the famed “overview effect”—the ability to see the Earth in a way you never have before and perhaps appreciate it in a new way too. Also here were were longtime friends Tom Reuter and John Gardenhire of Denver, both 34, who admit that taking the risk of going to space—especially for a suborbital experience that will last only 15 minutes and set them back a cool $250,000—is not something they can justify rationally, and so they don’t try. Gardenhire bought his ticket first and effectively dared Reuter to join him. Reuter accepted the challenge. Here too, improbably, was Zanaib Azim, an 11-year-old Canadian girl of Pakistani descent. Assuming Virgin Galactic actually permits someone so young to fly, she is going up as early as 2015, when she’ll be 13—a gift from her father, who brought her here today.
“We plan to put more people in space per year than the entire number of people who have ever gone before,” says Branson. That existing existing population of space travelers stood at 530 as of the beginning of 2013—a big number to beat each year, but one Branson believes is in reach. “We’re doing this 50 years after NASA did it for the first time. We have much greater knowledge than was available back then.”
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That was the tone of this morning’s overall event—part pep rally, part status report, part exercise in corporate transparency from a still-young company that has so far signed up and taken deposits from a total of 640 people, promising to fly them aboard a spaceship that’s still in development and that, to date, has yet to crack the barrier to space even in a mere test run. And yet the tentative plan is to have enough successful shakedown cruises complete that the commercial flights can begin sometime in 2014.
“I think that’s achievable,” says Dave Mackay, 56, a former pilot for Britain’s Royal Air Force and commercial pilot for Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, who is now flying for Virgin Galactic. “The biggest transition was when we went from Mach .9 to Mach 1.2—what’s called the transonic regime. The loads on the ship at that supersonic speed are not all that different from what they will be at the eventual peak speeds of Mach 3.2.”
But the day itself was also a reminder of how tricky space travel is—far trickier and less predictable than Branson’s much larger commercial airline operation. The centerpiece of the day was supposed to be a test flight of the spacecraft—a takeoff from the Mojave runway and a climb, glide and landing. But that was scrubbed even before dawn due to high desert winds.
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Certainly, even the most well-proven aircraft would have been grounded in the face of gusts strong enough to rip a car door out of your hands the moment you opened it up and tried to step outside. But SpaceShipTwo is a much more complicated beast.
A small, six-passenger vehicle with a wingspan of just 42 ft. (12.8 km), it is actually just one part of a two-ship tandem. It takes off tucked under the belly of its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, with a longer 140-ft. (43 m) wingspan—just 16 ft. (4.8 m) less than a Boeing 767. WhiteKnightTwo carries SpaceShipTwo up to 50,000 ft. (15,000 m) under ordinary jet power and drops it. The spacecraft then climbs under rocket power until it punches through the official threshold of space, 50 nautical miles (92 km) up. There it will arc over gently, offering a little more than five minutes of weightlessness and spectacular views, before plunging back down for a runway landing. What could go wrong?
That, in fairness, is a question as flip as it is legitimate. Space travel is an insanely dangerous, insanely complicated undertaking that involves getting large machines moving at high velocity, all the while carrying enormous amounts of explosive fuel and doing so in strict obedience to myriad laws of aeronautical physics that are highly intolerant of sloppiness. You pay with your life if you get things wrong.
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And yet Branson is right that we know a great, great deal more than we knew in 1961 when Al Shepard and then Gus Grissom made humanity’s first suborbital flights. And those exponential advances in raw knowledge have been matched by similar progress in materials, engineering and, not least, computer know-how. What’s more, a suborbital flight—essentially an up and down lob shot—is far less complicated and moves a lot slower than an orbital mission. “We’re about 70 times less energetic than an orbital flight,” says Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, former NASA chief of staff. “Can we demonstrated 10 to the negative-ninth reliability like a 777 can? No, but we’ve been flying aircraft for 100 years. We believe we’re building the safest spacecraft ever flown.”
That is something the 300 people here today and the 340 others who are also holding tickets are betting on. And to the extent that risk exists—and it does—there are other compensations. Belle Lupton, 28, a U.K. native and a television correspondent for Al Jazeera and ITV, is booked to go, and she doesn’t have to wonder who the other five people in the other five seats will be that day. They’ll be her parents, her two sisters, and her little brother, who is now 17. Reserve six seats and you get one free, but that still means her father, who works in mergers and acquisitions, is handing over $1.25 million dollars for a 15 minute vacation—or about $83,000 per minute.
“My father was always of the opinion that you give your children experiences,” Lupton says simply. Risky or not, he’s making good on those beliefs in the biggest way possible. And that experience—as virtually all of the 530 other people who have made the trip before would attest—is like none other.
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