Remember when you were a little kid on family vacation, nosed pressed against the glass of an airplane window, wishing that you were flying to the moon instead of Aunt Ida's for that family reunion? You still do that? Don't worry, so do we, and someone's almost got the whole joyride to the moon thing worked out. So, prepare to make a break from Aunt Mabel's cheek-pinching ritual, because Virgin Galactic anticipates testing their first completed pedestrian space-craft in late 2007.
Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, boasts that this will be 'the world's first ever venture into space tourism. Galactic is currently holed up in California's Mojave Desert, finetuning the space ship's design, via some very impressive (and presumably also very safe) technology by Burt Rutan. The design of the privately-built spaceships is based on the history-making SpaceShipOne craft.
Even with years spent on the craft's technology, don't expect to hop onto your flight with no preparation more extensive than purchasing an in-flight magazine. Virgin Galactic will opt to prep its potential space monkeys with a three-day program, including medical checks and physical training in a low-gravity environment.
So, how exactly will it happen, this moment where you realize your boyhood dream to be an astronaut? You, your spaceship, and approximately five other passengers will be ferried to the daunting height of 50,000 feet attached to a jet-carrier mothership. Then, your craft will be released and virtually sling-shotted into the far reaches of space at 3000 mph, four times the speed of sound. (It would be at this point that you probably just personally wet yourself.)
Slingshotted into space why does that sound more than a little dangerous? Virgin Galactic wants you to know that, yes, they know what they're doing and so does their technology guru, so these missions should be both relatively safe and relatively cost-efficient.
Commercial flights are slated to begin about a year after testing, probably in 2009. In the mean time, eat your Wheaties, cross your fingers, and practice your zero-gravity navigation, because we hear there are some mad-crazy parties in outer space. And, you know, zero-gravity is going to do some amazing things for your keg-stand technique.
The Final Frontier
November 28, 2006