Budget Space Travel with Virgin

By Tracy Norris

Do you fancy being on the first commercial flight into space, powered only by laughing gas and rubber?  85,000 potential customers have already registered to be the first customers on Virgin Galactic’s White Knight, Spaceship One to do just that.

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For a mere $200,000 you can join the queue and experience a two and a half hour flight that will leave the earth’s atmosphere and allow you to experience weightlessness.  According to  Will Whitehorn, Virgin Galactic’s President, you will then “return to earth to receive the official U.S. Government astronaut wings and a nice cup of tea”!

Whitehorn delivered a lecture to an audience at Edinburgh Napier University this week on the Virgin Galactic project in which he reassured listeners that the cost of a ticket is expected to drop gradually to just $90,000 per person, making this a relatively ‘budget’ space travel option for the future.  To put this in context, the first commercial airplane flights in at the turn of the 20th Century cost the equivalent of $85,000 in today’s money.

But space tourism is only one aspect of Whitehorn’s business model.  With a launch cost in the region of $1 million, versus N.A.S.A.’s shuttle cost of around $1 billion, Virgin Galactic is set to become the most affordable way to get people, satellites and equipment into space.

The White Knight, Spaceship One designed by Burt Rutan using his Scaled Composites materials, can potentially be used for scientific research, space training, technology tests and demonstrations, small satellite orbital launch as well as tourism.  A satellite launch currently costs N.A.S.A. around $50 million.  Virgin Galactic are aiming to get this cost down below $5 million.  They already have 7 space science customers signed up.  The business model certainly looks like it will work but it was the space tourists who brought the critical early investment in.

The mothership is due to be unveiled on 7th December 2009, with a first flight scheduled for January 2010.    Whitehorn will be on board along with engineers, but the first commercial flight isn’t expected to take place for a further 14 months.

So who gets to be on the first commercial flight into space?  Richard Branson will of course be there.  If all goes according to plan, so will 91 year old Professor James Lovelock, the famous Gaia theorist and close friend and adviser to Branson.  Professor Stephen Hawking will also be aboard, health permitting.   According to Whitehorn, neither world-renowned scientist will have to pay for the flight, “Lovelock because he can’t afford it, and Hawking because he deserves it”.