By Robin McKie
The first tourist flight into space is scheduled for next year, and it's cheaper than you'd think. But is this the final frontier for luxury travel, or a highly dangerous sport?
In London, a smart new office opened its doors public earlier this year. Its front window proclaims, in large letters, the simple motto: "Space is Virgin Territory". Here, amid the trappings of the past, is travel's future.
Inside the office, young men and women are busy working at computers and telephones while decorators put finishing touches to plush, glass-partitioned rooms. These are the new UK headquarters of Virgin Galactic, which Richard Branson hopes will create an entirely new tourism market - in outer space.
"Things are going incredibly well," says Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic's commercial director. "These are computer graphics images, but next year we hope to replace them with photographs of the real thing: our first commercial flights into outer space."
It has cost Branson more than £162m to design and build a fleet of WhiteKnightTwo motherships and smaller SpaceShipTwo planes, which will whisk customers more than 100km above the Earth's surface, where our planet's atmosphere ends and space begins. The technology is striking and innovative.
Strapped to the belly of a jet-powered mothership, each spaceplane - carrying two pilots and six passengers - will take off from a runway, ascending until it reaches an altitude of 15km. There will be a stomach-churning lurch as the spaceplane is released; its rocket engine will ignite; and passengers will be rammed back in their seats as the craft soars upwards at a speed of more than 4,000km/h. Outside, the blue sky will turn black as the craft hurtles out of the atmosphere.
After 90 seconds, the pilot will cut the engine and passengers will coast in weightless silence as their spaceplane glides into space. More than 100km below, the curve of the Earth will be clearly visible against the dark background of space. Passengers will have six or seven minutes to float round the cabin and indulge in an ecstasy of camera-clicking before their ship starts to arc downwards. Its stubby wings will then be pointed upwards to turn the craft into a giant shuttlecock that will "flutter" back to Earth. Back down at an altitude of around 15km, its wings will be returned to their original configuration and the craft will glide to an airport landing. The day of the space tourist will have arrived.
Among those booked on Virgin Galactic's first mission are Branson, his son Sam and daughter Holly. Angelina Jolie is scheduled for an early flight, as is her partner, Brad Pitt. Others booking the £125,000 journey include Ashton Kutcher, Formula 1 drivers Rubens Barrichello and Niki Lauda, and scientists James Lovelock and Stephen Hawking; Princess Beatrice and Paris Hilton also make appearances on early flight schedules.
Virgin Galactic - which Branson describes as "by far and away my boldest venture" - has so far received more than £64m in deposits from 520 customers who want to escape the surly bonds of Earth, albeit for a very short period of time. First flights are scheduled for the end of 2013, a date that puts Virgin Galactic in pole position in the race to commercialise space. But Branson is not without competition, as will be apparent this week in London when delegates gather for the third European conference on space tourism. The event will reveal the startling progress that has been made in an industry that only existed in science-fiction writers' minds a couple of decades ago.
For example, Andrew Nelson, CEO of the aerospace consortium XCOR, based in Mojave, California, is billed to report on the progress of his Lynx spacecraft. It is designed to take off and land like a plane. In terms of scale it is a relative minnow compared with Virgin Galactic's craft: Lynx has room for just a pilot and one passenger. On the other hand, its order book, filled with £34m-worth of flights, is every bit as impressive. Trials are set to start this year with commercial launches in 2014. "We remain focused on delivering the coolest rocket plane on the planet," Nelson said earlier this year when he announced the raising of funding for the final stages of Lynx's development.
Others touting for space tourism business include Armadillo Aerospace, based in Texas, which is developing a vertical take-off rocket to carry customers on sub-orbital and, later on, full orbital flights. The Russian company Orbital Technologies made headlines last year when it revealed plans to construct a Hotel in the Heavens. In this orbiting, four-room guest house, customers will be able to cavort in zero gravity for several days - though at a price: £500,000 for a seat on the Soyuz rocket to take them into orbit and a further £100,000 for a five-night stay. Food will be microwaved, there will be no alcohol and the water will be recycled. On the other hand, the views will be out of this world.
A key common factor for these projects is the price-tag: steep but not prohibitive. It costs around £30,000 to £75,000 to make an attempt to climb Mount Everest, for example, and it is no coincidence that flights by Virgin Galactic and XCOR are priced only slightly higher - to capture the high-adventure tourism market dominated by the man and woman with the Breitling watch and the six-figure salary.
This is scarcely bringing spaceflight to the masses, of course, but it will make it more available than has previously been the case. To date only seven people, all billionaires, have bought their way into space for a week's stay at the International Space Station (ISS). The most recent of these was Guy Laliberté, the Canadian founder of Cirque du Soleil, who paid £22m for a flight in which he gave interviews from the ISS about the world's impending freshwater crisis before donning a clown's red nose for his descent to Earth in a Soyuz capsule.
Source: The Guardian. To read more about "Space Tourism: To Infinity And Beyond?"