Riots in Thailand. Riots in Greece. Oil in the Mexican Gulf. Erupting volcanoes in Iceland…
Factor in numerous wars, earthquakes and terrorism risks and Planet Earth isn’t looking very safe these days.
So just maybe Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space tourism project will hit a chord with people looking for the ultimate – and ultimately different – holiday destination…
Virgin Galactic is entrepreneur Branson’s most ambitious project to date, aiming to open space travel to (wealthy) members of the public in 2012.
Tickets for the day trip into outer space are priced at 200,000 dollars and passengers need to undergo pre-flight medical tests and some ‘astronaut’ training before going into orbit.
Here’s an extract from the Virgin Galactic website describing the experience of space flight for passengers:
“After two or three fabulous days of preparing with your crew, you’re suited up and raring to go. The climb to 50,000 feet is marked with quiet contemplation but there’s an air of confidence and eager anticipation. Then the countdown to release, a brief moment of quiet before a wave of unimaginable but controlled power surges through the craft. You are instantly pinned back into your seat, overwhelmed but enthralled by the howl of the rocket motor and the eye-watering acceleration which has you traveling in seconds at almost 2500mph, over 3 times the speed of sound.
As you hurtle through the edges of the atmosphere, the large windows show the cobalt blue sky turning to mauve and indigo and finally to black. You’re on a high; this is really happening, you’re loving it and you’re coping well. You start to relax; but in an instant your senses are back on full alert, the world contained in your spaceship has completely transformed. The rocket motor has been switched off and it is QUIET. The silence of space is awe inspiring. What’s really getting your senses screaming now though is that the gravity which has dominated every movement you’ve made since the day you were born is not there any more. There is no up and no down and you’re out of your seat experiencing the freedom that even your dreams underestimated. After a graceful mid-space summersault you find yourself at a large window and what you see is a view that you’ve seen in countless images but the reality is so much more beautiful…
The blue map, curving into the black distance is familiar but has none of the usual marked boundaries. The incredibly narrow ribbon of atmosphere looks worryingly fragile. What you are looking at is the source of everything it means to be human, and it is home.
Then you’re back to your reclined seat and gravity is starting to return. The deceleration produces strong g forces, but you’re lying down easing the intensity. You feel the feathered wings of the spacecraft producing a powerful drag as the thickness of the atmosphere increases, although out of the windows it still looks like space. The g forces quickly ease off and you hear the pilot announce the start of the glide home.”
Quite understandably, Branson has said he finds the space tourism project incredibly exciting. “Barack Obama” he says “is effectively trying to hand space travel over to the private sector and Virgin Galactic is the leader in enabling members of the public to go into space. We are literally starting an operational space programme. It is exciting that a British company will be the only one able to take people from all over the world into space.”
Virgin has already invested an astonishing half billion dollars in the creation of a Virgin Galactic space port in New Mexico and many millions have been spent engaging the designers and engineers necessary to the space tourism project. Branson also hired a former NASA chief-of-staff (George T Whitesides) to supervise the Galactic project.
With successful test flights already having been performed, Branson is now planning a flight into space for himself and his family. His excitement about the prospect is clear when he says: “‘It is something that I have to pinch myself about occasionally.”
Now, while Virgin Galactic represents a qualitatively new departure in travel it has inevitably attracted criticism on environmental grounds, just as Branson’s Virgin Atlantic airline has.
Yet while he says he entirely appreciates the views of the environmental lobby, Branson argues the most positive and forward-looking approach is to focus on finding clean fuels rather than restricting travel. Putting rather a lot of money where his mouth is he has, since 2006, put 300 million dollars into environmental projects and is also offering a £25 million prize, via the Virgin Earth Challenge, to anyone who develops a way of cleansing the atmosphere of greenhouses gases. In 2008, a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 became the first commercial airline flight to use biofuel. It flew from London Heathrow to Amsterdam’s Schipol airport with a mix of nut oils and kerosene in its tanks.
Branson will continue to face critics as he expands his businesses and takes day trippers into space and yet he poses an interesting alternative to critics of the travel industry. Where they are generally saying travel should be restricted and fuel use should be limited, Branson’s ethic is that clean fuels should be developed and travel should be extended to people who once had little access to it – and now, with Virgin Galactic, to destinations previously unreachable except by professional astronauts.
The Virgin boss may be opening up space tourism to a few wealthy day trippers – but perhaps he’s also opening up serious discussion about, and research into, the long-overdue development of clean fuels.