If you are struggling looking for that next holiday destination, perhaps in search of something out of this world, then a gentlemen that goes by the name of Sir Richard Branson may have a solution for you. The entrepreneur has always been known for his philosophy to "think big" and "aim high", however the boss of Virgin is taking the concept of "shooting for the stars" to a whole new level.
Sir Richard Branson, with the Virgin Galactic concept.
According to Sir Richard Branson the idea came about when he was a young boy, sitting with his family in front of the television. The year was 1969, and the world had stood still to witness the first man walk on the moon. From that experience a dream was formed. Like many he dreamed to go into outer space. For those who apply limits to themselves an idea like that may sound like false hope. But for those who are dreamers, everything is possible.
Virgin Galactic, the world's first commercial spaceline.
Many years later Sir Richard Branson recalls a conversation that may have changed the course of his life, as well as added momentum to the dreams created in the imagination of a young boy. The conversation was with the legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin. That's right, the second man to ever walk on the moon. The discussion revolved around the concept of "commercial" space travel. Was it possible? Richard Branson expressed his disappointment with how NASA never progressed to the point of offering people with an option for commercial space expeditions. Buzz Aldrin suggested that the only feasible method of getting commuters into space was to have rocket launches achieved from mid air, rather than from the ground. What an interesting concept, one that was not lost on Sir Richard Branson.
Buzz Aldrin and Richard Branson at Spaceport America.
The idea was born. Not long after Sir Richard Branson came up with the name Virgin Galactic. The business name was promptly registered around 1990. Now that Richard Branson had a name, the next logical step in his extravagant yet exceptional mind was to get to work on the idea.
The successful Space Ship One (above), compared to Virgin Galactic's Space Ship Two the VSS Enterprise (below).
In 2004, a company named Scaled Composites was successful in sending their pilot Mike Melvill into space on a concept aircraft named the "Space Ship One". The design was the brain child of aerospace engineer Burt Rutan. The idea was simple, yet crazy enough. A manned aircraft took off like any other plane would from an airport. However, the aircraft's cargo was the main difference. The plane was in fact a launch pad for the manned rocket it carried under its central wing. This in effect made Mike Melvill the first ever commercial astronaut and the 434th person in history to go into space. This also made the Space Ship One the first "non-government reusable manned spacecraft". The successful flight has provided the foundation for Virgin Galactic's bold venture, to take travellers past the Earth's atmosphere and into space, and just like any ordinary holiday, to return safely home back to the airport from where they departed.
Spaceport America, also known as "Virgin Galactic's Gateway to Space".
Fast forward to 2012, and the idea is now more than ever a reality with Virgin Galactic conducting test flights from its base "Spaceport America" in New Mexico. The spaceport has also recently been christened by Sir Richard Branson as the "Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space". The spaceport was officially opened on October 17th 2011. The 120,000 square-foot building will operate as a combined terminal and hangar facility. It will contain all Virgin Galactic's astronaut preparation and celebration facilities, a mission control centre, and a friends and family area. Virgin Galactic looks to be on track to be the very first air carrier to take commercial passengers into sub orbital space flight.
The concept is in fact so close to reality that Virgin is already taking bookings for its inaugural flights or "missions" if you prefer. Requirements for the trip will include an oversized wallet, a strong stomach and an extremely high trust level. However, Virgin Galactic ensures that safety is its greatest priority in this endeavour. As a result, there is no actual date set for its first ever voyage. Although rumours suggest that Virgin Galactic is aiming for as early as 2013 for its first commercial flight. An intensive safety and training class will be included in the price of the ticket, three days worth in fact. Guests from then on will be regarded as future "astronauts" so expect the training to be of the extreme nature, preparing travellers for multiple g-forces and zero gravity scenarios.
Be warned that a seat on the flight will set you back $200,000, with something in the vicinity of a $20,000 deposit. Virgin has reported that close to 500 passengers have already secured their seats as future astronauts. That is already more than the total number of people who have been to space altogether.
If you have been among the lucky ones to book a seat on one of its inaugural flights, then you will have some very interesting company. Sir Richard Branson and his children were among the first to lock in their seats. The flight will also be shared with the one and only Russel Brand, who managed to score a ticket from his ex wife Katy Perry for his birthday. This is assuming she hasn't taken the gift back by now, and to be honest why wouldn't you? It is a ticket to space after all. Other rumoured passengers include Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Ashton Kutcher, Tom Hanks, and Katy Perry herself.
Virgin Galactic, the world's first commercial spaceline.
Sir Richard Branson reportedly offered a ticket to William Shatner, under the assumption that he would also want to "boldly go where no one has gone before". Incredibility the captain from the famous Star Trek movies and television series turned down the offer, admitting he was afraid of space travel. It just goes to show that you shouldn't believe everything you see on television. However, other fascinating people to be onboard will include Namira Salim, a UAE-based explorer and artist, who is looking to add to her exploits. She has previously planted the flag of her native Pakistan on both the North and South Poles and has also skydived off Mount Everest. She will be joined by renowned scientist Professor Stephen Hawking and formula one driver Rubens Barrichello, who have both been rumoured to have paid their deposit.
The exclusive club of "future astronauts" have the added perks of being invited to exclusive locations with Richard Branson, including his own private holiday destination "Necker Island". The ultimate goal of this is to give the travellers an opportunity to get to know each other and understand more about the project. Passengers are required to be over 18 years old. The oldest person to have so far locked in an early seat is leading environmental scientist Professor James Lovelock who is over 90 years old.
So how is this all possible you ask? The concept that has been created looks like it could have came from the pages of a comic book. This extraordinary engineering feat will require two aircraft. The first has been christened "White Knight Two". It has also been referred to by Virgin as the mother ship "VMS Eve". The dual hull, quad engine aircraft consists of two cockpits and has a wingspan of 43 metres (140 feet). Its purpose will be to carry the second aircraft to launch altitude, thought to be 16 kilometres (52,000 feet).
Now this is where the real action begins. The second aircraft named "Spaceship Two" also known as the "VSS Enterprise", will then be released from the mother ship into free fall where it will ignite its hybrid rocket accelerating to three and a half times the speed of sound. Passengers will be relieved to find out that the ride will slow down at around an altitude of 100 kilometres above sea level. This altitude is often referred to as the barrier between the Earth's atmosphere and outer space, known as the "Karman Line". The spaceship is capable of reaching an altitude of 110 kilometres. Passengers will now have the opportunity to see the once in a lifetime views of the Earth's atmosphere through the VSS Enterprise's large purpose built windows. These are views that only previous astronauts have seen, and from all reports of previous expeditions photos don't quite capture the life altering images as seen from ones own eyes. And now the moment everyone has been waiting for. Passengers will have a short period of time to unbuckle from their seats and experience complete weightlessness. There will be more than enough room to experiment in zero-gravity conditions as only six passengers will be taken up at a time, accompanied by two experienced flight crew.
What makes the VSS Enterprise even more extraordinary is its feathering technology, which will be used to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. When the VSS Enterprise achieves re-entry it folds its wings up, in effect falling like a feather. This will allow the pilots to take their hands off the controls on re-entry and instead utilise the aerodynamics of the spaceship, which will do the work for them. Due to its unique design, the spacecraft eventually returns to its original position for an unpowered decent, gliding back to the runway which it started from. The breakthrough in technology has solved the often complicated problem of calculating re-entry and has overcome the possibility of malfunctioning equipment. The passengers seats will also be able to recline to a horizontal position during re-entry, thought to ease the experience of g-forces on the return descent through the Earth's atmosphere. Total flight time has been estimated to be less than three hours.
The VSS Enterprise's unique feathering technology.
To commemorate the science fiction television series Star Trek, the VSS Enterprise also has a sister ship in development appropriately named the VSS Voyager. In its initial stages Virgin Galactic is looking at having a total of two mother ships and five spaceships utilising multiple spaceports around the world. In addition to the already opened New Mexico "Gateway to Space", planning is already in progress for future spaceports in Sweden for European travellers and Abu Dhabi for its expeditions from the Middle East.
Virgin hopes to move on to transcontinental flights via space. This will not only have a lower carbon foot print compared to convention flights, but will also significantly reduce travel times allowing passengers to fly for example from London to Sydney in just a few hours.
Virgin Galactic alongside Virgin America flying over San Francisco.
Virgin Galactic has also come to agreements with NASA to carry payloads, scientists and researchers to space. This will be ground breaking for many reasons including being a more environmentally friendly option as well as offering a much lower cost than previous technologies.
Space Ship Two the VSS Enterpise successfully landing.
To be honest, $200,000 would get most of us a nice bungalow in Bora Bora for like a month or two. Maybe even a week or two stay at one of the only 7 star hotels in the world, the Burj Al Arab located in Dubai. It is outlandish think that the cost of luxury could be so high. Then again, come to think of it maybe the price is no more outlandish than the idea of flying into outer space itself. The question you have to ask yourself is whether $200,000 is worth a once in a life time experience, allowing you to see the world and the universe from a whole different point of view. Could an enlightening experience like this help us come to the realisation of how small we really are in the scheme of things. If "space" is the final frontier, what is next for all of us? Maybe the benefit of a new perspective is just what we need to find the answer. Perhaps we have to get to space to find it. Come to think of it, a holiday in space doesn't sound like a bad idea after all.