As early as next year, if you are one of a lucky few, you may find yourself strapped in a six-passenger rocket some 50,000 feet above the Earth’s surface, bracing yourself as it disengages from the specially designed jet plane mothership, and shoots cannon-like 60 miles up into suborbital space at three times the speed of sound. If all goes well, you'll then get to unbuckle and float in zero gravity for a full fifteen minutes, spying on the earth’s curvature, all of North America and the Pacific Ocean.
This scenario is what Virgin Galactic is banking on. So much so that though the rocket is still unfinished they are already putting their first-picked passengers through flight training. And that is how Wilson da Silva, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Cosmos (the biggest-selling science magazine in Australia) found himself in Philly last month at the National Aerospace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center strapped into one of the most advanced centrifuge simulators on Earth shouting words that we cannot print here as 6 Gs of force pressed down upon him.
But first, some background.
Four years ago, Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites won the Ansari X Prize for his ShapeShipOne design. The competition offered $10 million to any non-governmental group who could launch a manned spacecraft into space twice within a two week period, and was modeled after the 1927 Orteig Prize, which prompted Charles Lindberg to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
The win catapulted Rutan into the international spotlight and his technology was licensed that same year by Sir Richard Branson, founder of the behemoth Virgin Group and the subsequent world's first "spaceline": Virgin Galactic. Branson and Rutan joined forces with Paul Allen of Microsoft fame (who also financed Rutan’s X Prize bid) to form the SpaceShip Company in 2005, which manufactures all of the spacecraft for the space tourism endeavor. The current rocket model, SpaceShipTwo, carries two pilots and six passengers.
From the start, despite a ticket price of up to $200,000, passengers lined up to be among the first into space. Over 30,000 people have reserved spots since tickets went on sale in mid-2005 (though not all of these have been confirmed with the required $20,000 deposit). Some notable ticket holders include theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, James Lovelock, author of the “Gaia hypothesis”, and actress Victoria Principal, who played “Pam” on Dallas. The order of flights for the first 100 will be literally drawn from a barrel.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.