2010: A space tourist odyssey

14 Nov 2008

In space, no one will serve you drinks – or at least not while you’re in zero gravity. Besides, the little cocktail stick would float away and the martini would bounce off the walls. Apart from this, Richard Branson wants to make space tourism as normal as hopping on a plane.

Gadgetrepublic.com caught up with Virgin Galactic’s commercial director, Stephen Attenborough, while he was in Dublin for Science Week Ireland 2008, where he was giving a talk on ‘The future of space tourism’. 

Attenborough, the first full-time employee and commercial director of Virgin Galactic,  talked about the world’s first-ever spaceline and its plans to revolutionise space travel and bring it to the everyman.

“[Commercial space travel] was technology that we knew had worked. SpaceShipOne as a prototype had worked back in 2004, and we believed we could operate it safely,” he explained.

“Obviously, this requires people willing to be early adopters, so my job was to go out and identify this first market and get them to sign up early, and space tourism was the obviously choice.

“Richard Branson is very intuitive about these things and wanted to go to space for years. His mother told him in the Sixties that he would probably be going to space by 1980. It didn’t happen, and he felt frustrated about that.”

According to Attenborough, Branson thought that if he was feeling frustrated then there were plenty of others feeling the same way, and this is where the idea for Virgin Galactic came from.

So what does Virgin Galactic do? Well, being a space tourist involves a few things. First, you have to be willing to part with US$20,000 for a deposit to secure your ticket, with the total price coming to a princely sum of US$200,000.

“Fortunately, there were quite a few people who could afford this initial ticket price, so we signed them up. To date, 300 people have paid for their tickets up front, and without these pioneers we would never have been able to realise the importance of transforming access to space,” said Attenborough.

The first test flight of SpaceShipTwo will take place before Christmas of this year, but the first flight with actual space tourists and not test pilots on board will not happen until some time in 2010.

SpaceShipTwo will be brought out of the atmosphere on the mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, to a height of 50,000 ft. This will take roughly an hour. After this, SpaceShipTwo detaches and its own rocket kicks into action, and this is where the fun begins.

In 90 seconds, you will travel to the maximum height of 360,000 ft, where the space shuttle will rest for several minutes and all six passengers get a chance to unbuckle and float around in zero gravity with a view that pretty much makes seeing the Pyramids, Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon all wrapped up into one seem mundane.

Each trip takes six passengers only, along with two pilots, and the first flight will include Richard Branson and his children.

“The whole trip is two and a half hours. Roughly half the time is spent getting up there with the rest for getting down because there are a few minutes of weightlessness at the top,” said Attenborough.

US$200,000? What about the rest of us? Well, Attenborough reckons that in a few years time, all going well, the prices could drop to US$50,000 or even lower, so get saving.

By Marie Boran