To say that Richard Branson is an eccentric billionaire or oddball visionary would be the understatement of the century. Though not formally educated in business or economics, he’s got a knack for investing in new and relevant things, and always seems to be able to turn a profit while doing it. So it’s little wonder then why he started Virgin Galactic, a private aerospace company that is offering patrons their first shot at sub-orbital flights.
The idea commercial space ships has been in development for some time, with Branson committing a great deal of his empire’s investment capital and research funds towards this end. In 2008, these efforts bore fruit with the first flight of the White Knight Two launcher craft, known officially as the VMS Eve. This plane, also known as a “mothership”, is a four-engine, twin-fuselage craft with an extended wing base and two air crews. As the name suggests, it acts as a launching platform for the aerospace vehicle itself, which deploys once the WK2 is fully airborne.
Then, in December of 2009, Virgin unveiled the suborbital space ship, known as SpaceShip Two. Ever since 2004, Branson’s company ran test flights using a smaller model, but decided to upgrade to a larger, twin-pilot model for long-term commercial use. By February 2012, SpaceShipTwo had completed 15 test flights and an additional 16 glide tests, the last of which took place in September 2011.
In the end, the process is pretty simple and borrows from NASA’s long-standing practice of launching their space shuttles by piggybacking them onto commercial craft. In this case, the process involves the WK2 flying the SS2 to deployment altitude where it will then be released and take over its own flight using its rocket engines. The SS2 will then fly to an altitude of 100 km (330,000 feet) above see level. After performing a circuit in near-zero gravity, it will deploy its wings and glide back to Earth.
No firm schedule has been given as to when commercial flights will commence, but given the pace at which things are moving, it would not be farfetched to think that they are likely to begin before the decade is out. In addition, no word has been given on when exactly it will affordable for the vast majority of people to use this service, or when aerospace terminals will be built into existing international airports.
As it stands, tickets for the maiden voyage go for a whopping $200,000 US or £121,000, and 400 seats have already been spoken for, largely by public figures and international tycoons. The flight will be two hours end-to-end, and will involve six minutes of weightlessness once its reaches maximum altitude. Seems like a lot of money for something that only lasts six minutes; but hey, people have spent way more on far less!
Also, check out the promotional video from Virgin Galactic’s own website. I think you’ll agree, though they may oversell the significance of this by just a bit, the production values are still pretty damn good!