2012: The year Virgin Galactic makes private space travel a reality

2012: The year Virgin Galactic makes private space travel a reality

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News & Events - Engineering News

January 4, 2012

Private companies have made a significant amount of progress in engineering spacecraft for leisure travel, prompting a growing number of everyday people to pursue their dreams of spaceflight.

The retirement of NASA's Space Shuttle program this past summer prompted a wave of competition among private businesses across the U.S. and the world, as they compete to develop spacecraft capable of not only carrying astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), but also bringing tourists on trips to space. In the past – not even a decade ago – such travel was limited to the very wealthy, but companies such as Virgin Galactic are making what was once a dream into a startling reality.

The first flights of spacecraft that will take private citizens into space are set to take off this year. Surprisingly, booking such a trip is less complicated than one would anticipate, The New York Times reports. Those intrigued by the vastness of space can sign up on the internet through many company's websites. They will, however, have to fork over a substantial down payment, one that is significantly higher than the fees one would expect a commercial airline to charge for a first-class ticket.

Virgin Galactic, part of British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin empire, will offer tourists and science enthusiasts the chance to travel just beyond the space barrier this year. The company engineered and developed a rocket ship specifically for the purpose, and it is charging less for tickets than the tens of millions of dollars a lucky few have paid to travel aboard one of Russia's rockets to the ISS.

While still exciting, a trip aboard a Virgin Galactic spacecraft offers a different experience from a NASA's Space Shuttle or a Russian Soyuz. Virgin Galactic will take passengers on a 150-minute journey through space. Passengers will experience weightlessness for approximately five minutes, according to the company. How much will such an experience run the average traveler? A mere $200,000 – with a $20,000 down payment, of course.

Aside from enabling private citizens to travel into space, Branson asserted that engineers would use Virgin Galactic to aid in their research, Fast Company reports. In an interview, the mogul affirmed that the company's spacecraft were built to exacting specifications, and that they were able to mitigate much of the deleterious environmental effects of NASA's Space Shuttle program.

"First of all, our space company, because our technology is brand new and not 40 years old as NASA's was, we will be able to put someone into space for less than the environmental price of an economy class ticket from London to New York and back," he said. "On top of that, we can put satellites into space for almost no carbon output because we’re launching them from 60,000 feet rather than land-based satellite launches. So we definitely will bring the carbon footprint of space travel down quite dramatically."

Thus far, 475 people have reserved a place on a Virgin Galactic flight. A majority have already paid the full ticket price, and are simply waiting for final safety and regulatory approval, according to the Times. While Virgin Galactic spacecraft will not orbit the Earth, they will soar 62 miles above its surface. First, however, they will complete a three-day training course at the company's training facility in New Mexico.

They will subsequently load onto a rocket ship attached to a carrier plane that will fly 50,000 feet into the air. At that point, the rocket will detach and soar more than 300,000 feet into the air. When weightlessness is achieved, passengers will be able to unbuckle and experience zero gravity.

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