Space tourism is poised to become a reality. If you can afford the $200,000 per orbit and return trip, you can to book a spaceflight to adventure not long after the New Year. So far, more than 450 people have.
Welcome to Spaceport America. British billionaire Richard Branson, founder of both Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic, recently unveiled the luxury spaceport located in the New Mexico desert. Completion of the $209 million taxpayer-financed spaceport comes only six years after the initial agreement between Virgin Galactic and the State of New Mexico. Players in the building design included U.K.-based Foster and Partners, URS Corp., and New Mexico’s SMPC.
Both Virgin Galactic and Spaceport Authority officials tout the green design of the state-of-the-art terminal and it’s central feature: the nearly complete SpaceShipTwo. For instance, the spaceport uses geothermal energy, with tubes running through the earthen berm surrounding part of the building to help cool the interior. Natural ventilation can be used during mild seasons.
The SpaceShipTwo is air launched, which avoids the need for polluting ground-based rocketry. It features a hybrid rocket motor which uses benign, non-toxic fuels, at high altitude and with short burn times. Its descent and landing are unpowered. Finally, it’s fully reusable.
Based on current progress, Spaceport America is expected to reach operational capacity for public use in 2013. That is about the time Virgin Galactic plans to begin actual operations from Spaceport America. Virgin Galactic is the world’s first spaceline and the primary tenant of Spaceport America. Branson announced that they are now completing rocket testing and “ticking off the final boxes.”
What would the journey be like?
The SpaceShipTwo caries six passengers, and two pilots. The cabin affords first-class accommodations with two large windows alongside and overhead. There’s also ample cabin space to float in zero gravity. Flights will depart from and land at Spaceport America terminal.
Total flight time is about 3.5 hours, including approximately six minutes of weightlessness. Before ever leaving the ground though, passengers must take the required “Pre-Flight Experience Program.” This two or three day training provides the preparation needed to make the trip to outer space.
Once cleared for flight, passengers will board the SpaceShipTwo and be traveling in a matter of seconds at almost 2,500mph, over 3 times the speed of sound. The craft would race to an altitude of 50,000 feet. There the SpaceShipTwo separates from the carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo. The SpaceshipTwo’s engine ignites and the spacecraft breaches Earth’s gravity well at a speed of nearly four times the speed of sound.
That’s when our tourists will become true space travelers. As they begin their sub-orbital journey, profound silence will set in. The engine quiets and only the echoing emptiness of space remains. The bonds of gravity slip away and the many windows in the SpaceShipTwo afford panoramic views of our planet. Eventually, the spacecraft begins its glide back down to Earth, returning our astronauts to solid ground.
Weekly flights are planned initially, and longer-term plans provide for two flights daily. In the mean time, Virgin Galactic has announced that Spaceport America Preview Tours will “feature guided, exclusive access to the spaceport site and provide guests an up close and personal encounter only available during the current per-operational phase.” The three-hour tours are given on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and cost $59 for adults and $29 for children under 12.
Besides tourism, Spaceport America also supports scientific research and commercial endeavors, providing commercial launch services since 2006. NASA has signed a $4.5 million agreement for up to three chartered research flights. Additionally, Lockheed Martin, UP Aerospace, Microgravity Enterprises, Inc. and other companies operate out of the facility.
It appears the fruits of the Space Frontier Foundation’s Cheap Access to Space competition (CATS) have finally ripened. Challenging private industry to provide more economical and greener solutions for orbital lift, the cost of such an endeavor has been driven down to the point where smaller players can enter the field. With the advent of practical, civilian space travel and industry, Richard Branson can truly claim, the sky is no limit.