Space tourists flock to the heavens

Virgin Galactic’s rides aren’t cheap. But 700 people have already bought in.
SpaceShipTwo, christened VSS Enterprise soars through the sky during a test flight in Mojave, CA, USA. Photo by Mark Greenberg
(Mark Greenberg)

Only 550 or so people have ever flown into space. It’s remarkable, then, that almost 700 clients have already signed up with Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s private space-tourism company, which has yet to begin offering commercial space flights. The year 2014 will be big for Virgin Galactic. If all goes according to plan, Branson and his adult children, Holly and Sam, will be the first private passengers to travel into space aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo craft, ushering in a new era of space flight for the masses.

Virgin Galactic charges $250,000 for a ride. This isn’t cheap, but for space travel, it’s a bargain: In 2009, when Canadian billionaire and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté blasted off aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, he paid a reported $35 million for the privilege. Soon, a ticket into space will cost less than a Toronto condo. Clients will spend three days preparing at Spaceport America in New Mexico, the first space hub in the world to host private businesses such as Virgin Galactic; day four is the flight, a two-hour suborbital trip at an altitude of 50,000 feet. Clients experience “the blackness of space, zero gravity, fabulous views of Earth, and you come back an astronaut,” says Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic’s commercial director. The spaceship is equipped with extra-large windows to capitalize on the view.

Virgin Galactic isn’t the only private company with ambitions in space. Earlier this year, Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully flew its Dragon capsule to the International Space Station (ISS) on an unmanned resupply mission, becoming the first private company to reach the station. Orbital Sciences Corporation, another U.S. company, is scheduled to start a series of eight cargo resupply missions to the ISS late this year. Private companies could be ferrying NASA astronauts there as early as 2017. (The U.S., which has had no way to reach the ISS on its own since the Space Shuttle fleet retired in 2011, is using the Soyuz to transport its astronauts.)

Virgin Galactic’s suborbital flights won’t go as high as the ISS; they’re intended to be more affordable and accessible. “We know it will blow people away,” Attenborough says. “And it’s a doable first step.”

The commercial space industry has been plagued by setbacks and delays. Attenborough admits there are no guarantees, yet after years of preparation, the Virgin Galactic team is “quietly confident” that it’s reached the home stretch before launching its commercial service with the Branson family aboard. That first flight will be televised on NBC; the company is also planning a reality show, Space Race, in which people compete for a ride on the Virgin Galactic spaceship. Today, the astronauts among us are the rarest of the rare; years, or decades, from now, many of us will know a co-worker, neighbour or relative who’s been into space. We may even have a trip booked there ourselves.


Save the Date // APRIL 2014

Construction begins on what will be the world’s most powerful and advanced optical telescope—the Thirty-Metre Telescope (TMT), near the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. When it’s done, in 2021, it will give astronomers a glimpse back in time to the edge of our observable universe.