“It was Stephen Hawking who first got me thinking about this,” says Sir Richard Branson when asked about what prompted him to attempt to launch the world’s first commercial space flight, “when he explained that mankind had no option but to get to space as quickly as possible and start doing things up there that we have been doing on planet Earth, but in a much more efficient manner. I thought, why not Virgin?”
Following history-making test flights of Virgin SpaceShipOne in 2004, Virgin Galactic – the Virgin arm dedicated to space tourism – was born and began creating the world’s first commercial spaceline.
Seven years on and the latest spaceship prototype, Virgin SpaceShipTwo (SS2) is getting ready to offer daily flights from Spaceport America in New Mexico in the near future – and across the globe, hundreds of aspiring Virgin Galactic astronauts are preparing turn their dreams into a reality.
So, what would it be like to be a passenger on board the two hour flight into space?
In preparation for the experience, you will undergo three days of pre-flight training, including flight stimulation and G-force instruction, and you’ll get to know your crew.
You’ll undergo flight simulation and G-force instruction
On the day of departure you’ll be suited up and, along with your five fellow passengers and two pilots, you’ll board the spaceship. At this point, it will still be attached to the bigger, 140ft-wingspan jet carrier craft, or ‘mothership’, named VMS Eve after Sir Richard Branson’s mother.
After taking off from a runway almost two miles long, it will take you around 45 minutes to ascend to 50,000ft. Here, there will be a brief moment of quiet before the rocket motors fire. You’ll be pinned back to your seat as, with awe-inspiring power, the motors will propel you up to speeds of 3,000mph – four times the speed of sound – in order to detach you from the mothership.
From the spaceship’s panoramic windows you’ll be able watch the atmosphere change from cobalt blue to mauve, then indigo and finally black as you hurtle through the troposphere – where living things can survive – and into the stratosphere, until you reach the mesosphere at around 165,000ft, the layer where most meteors burn up.
At 361,000 feet you reach the point of zero gravity
It will take just 90 seconds after detaching from the mothership to reach 361,000ft, the point of zero gravity. At this point, the rocket motors switch off and in awe-inspiring silence you’ll be able to unclip your seatbelt and experience the floating sensation of weightlessness. The view around you will be familiar from countless images on TV, but nothing will prepare you for the reality of the blue earth curving into the black distance below you – extending for thousands of miles in all directions.
At 380,000ft you’ll pass the Karman line – the boundary into space – and you’ll officially become an astronaut.
The maximum altitude you’ll reach is 400,000ft (75 miles) above earth, over ten times higher than the typical cruising altitude of a 747. After a graceful mid-space somersault at this altitude, the pilots will initiate the specially-designed feathered re-entry system for safe descent towards Earth. Back in your seat you’ll feel gravity starting to return as you recline to ease the intensity of the G-force, which quickly fades as you start to glide back towards earth.
On touchdown back at Spaceport America you’ll be presented with your ‘astronaut wings’, to show you have been into space.
This experience of a lifetime will have cost you $200,000 (around £125,000). But with Brad Pit and Angelina Jolie, Paris Hilton and Kate Moss among those rumoured to have contributed to an estimated $10 million already paid in deposits for the first flight, it’ll certainly be two hours you’ll never forget.
- For more information, see Virgin Galactic’s website