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How about Paris for the weekend, or a two-week trip around Southeast Asia? Forget itthat's so 2014, so terrestrial. Should Virgin Galactic have their way, 2015 will be the year you book a vacation of suborbital space travel, or perhaps a supersonic 45-minute flight from California to London.
This month SpaceShipTwo completed her 54th test flight, improving the odds that next year will indeed be the one to finally kick off space tourism. In fact, Virgin Galactic has already begun the big move from Mojave, CA to Las Cruces, NM, the latter being home to Spaceport America and, hopefully soon, flights to space full of paying passengers (6, to be specific, plus 2 pilots).
Seeing as the US treats spaceship technology with something of the same intense secrecy as defense technology, much of what Virgin Galactic's been up to out in their hangar in the California desert is hush-hush top secret. The 10th Anniversary of their Ansari X Prize win however opened up a small window for us to peek behind those massive doors. Here's what we can tell (and show!) you:
We usually turn our attention towards New Mexico when it comes to space travel and space tourism, as that’s where Virgin Galactic has been preparing and planning for the last few years. However, there’s another spot to add to your space race map; the United Kingdom have their own sky-high dreams and they're focusing them on Scotland.
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We have been following the goings-on from the folks over at Virgin Galactic for quite some time, and it seems like only a matter of time before tickets are offered up for sale and passengers head towards the great beyond.
Things are getting one step closer, as Virgin Galactic recently submitted all kinds of paperwork and presentations to Uncle Sam and his buddies over at the Federal Aviation Administration. Thankfully everyone seems to be onboard with the plan, and that means we’re one step closer to taking off into outer space.
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Fearless prediction: this is going to get solved before it becomes a problem. There are too many famous people involved, there is too much money at stake, and the optics would be catastrophic. Can you imagine how this would play out in the media? "Washington DC has become so inefficient that it's blocking actual real life we're-living-in-the-future space tourism."
Federal agencies can be cumbersome and individual bureacrats can be petty. But if the FAA actually jams up the launch of a Virgin Galactic space jet - which people say might actually happen - we can finally and safely assume that literally nobody is in charge of anything any more. Seriously. It would look so horrible that we don't understand how anyone is even allowed to go on the record saying it's a possibility.
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You know we like to follow the goings on of Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic project, and now we’ll be able to do from the comfort of our couch. Virgin Galactic is teaming up with the mastermind behind shows like Survivor and The Voice—Mark Burnett—to launch a reality show to give away a ride into space.
Details are limited at this point, but we’d imagine that things would follow the basic premise of pretty much all reality shows. Unique personalities, wacky competitions, and plenty of drama should lead to a show worthy of a spot on our DVR. We do know that the show will be called "Space Race," and the big winner will get a ride aboard SpaceShipTwo.
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We haven’t heard that much from Virgin Galactic recently, but that doesn’t mean the space ship team hasn’t been hard at work behind the scenes. They’re still doing their very best to ensure that space tourism becomes a reality sooner than later. That’s definitely good, since from what it sounds like, the space flight carrier already has more than a few customers on the books and ready to go.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two just finished its latest round of testing, and thankfully things all went according to plan. The latest aerial endeavor was known as a "cold flow” test. They haven't lit the rocket engines on this sucker just yet, but it means they've completed pretty much everything else—so that means they’re ready for the next step. The ship’s contrail was even visible for the first time, so now we know how awesome the thing will look like when it blasts away from earth.
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It’s not exactly time to bust out the celebration champagne just yet, but it sounds like Virgin Galactic is starting to make some serious progress in the commercial space race. There’s been roughly 75 test flights of WhiteKnightTwo—that’s the carrier plane—as well as several SpaceShipTwo voyages.
SpaceShipTwo will eventually do its thing as the suborbital space ship, and its been doing its best to glide back down to the ground after being dropped high in the sky from WhiteKnightTwo.
The real excitement and testing is going to come as soon as this summer, as that’s when they’ll fire up the rockets to send SpaceShipTwo a little bit higher into the sky. The goal is to eventually reach around 62 miles or so above the earth, where paying passengers can get a glimpse of the curvature of globe, the darkness of space, and experience sweet, sweet weightlessness. If all goes well it sounds like this might be possible by the end of the year, but it would only be the spaceship making the journey—no paying passengers just yet.
Designed by Spanish entrepreneur Jose Lopez-Urdiales, the bloon is a sub-orbital device (kind of) that takes people to space (in a manner of speaking) and is scheduled to start flying in 2013 (theoretically). We're hedging on this description because the bloon isn't so much a spaceship like we've all become used to, as much as it is a really big hot air balloon.
The project webpage is reasonably slick, though the branding is kind of gratingly New Agey. There's lots of hand waving about going to "a place where borders do not really exist" and "where creation becomes real," with a promise to "help awaken consciousness of the unique, fragile beauty of our planet" so that you can become "one with your home planet." If we didn't know better we'd think it was kind of a parody, but other parts of the site seem reasonably straightforward.
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The United States doesn't really have a space travel program any more, inasmuch as our leaders found better and more inspirational programs to fund than ones that have astronauts literally reaching for the stars (e.g. empty rural airports in the home states of powerful Senators).
The problem is that NASA still has engineers and scientists who need to run experiments in low-gravity and no-gravity conditions, and they'd kind of like to keep doing some of those. So agency officials looked around, scratched their collective heads, and checked if there was still anyone still doing that space flight thing.
And that's the short version of how Virgin Galactic became NASA's official sub-contracter. The press release is here, and if you click through make sure you at least read the bolded quote in the middle of the release. It's the longest string of words that mean the least that you'll ever encounter.
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We've spent the last few years tracking how private space tourism is becoming a capital-T Thingand of course now that the space shuttle program is dead, private space flight is for better or worse the only game in town.
You might also remember a post from last year about commercial space travel company Space Adventures, which inked a deal with Boeing for vehicles that could be shot into low-earth orbit. We speculated at the time that the world was still many years from regular launches, both because it takes time to build spaceships and because we still don't really have the infrastructure to launch them.
All of that aside, we're certainly getting closer. There are now contests springing up promising to send lucky winners into space, with the latest coming from the team behind the Seattle Space Needle. The iconic tourist attraction was built for the 1962 World's Fair and, as its 50th anniversary celebration approaches, organizers want to recapture some of that futuristic magic.
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Obviously "affordable" is a relative concept when it comes to space tourism. But we've been telling you for a while to keep your fingers crossed for competition between Virgin Galactic and potential rivals, if only because that way we can all dream about one day maybe flying in a sub-orbital. Prices aren't going to drop in the next few years for a bunch of reasons, from the fact that Virgin Galactic is the only company building a spaceportwhich kind of puts a damper on competitionto the simple high costs of flying people into space.
Even at this early stage, though, serious people are beginning to envision how space tourism might become more available to more people. Virgin Galactic's former President Will Whitehorn just gave a far-reaching talk on the topic, and he predicted that ticket prices would drop from their current price of $200,000 to below $100,000.
Six months after its first solo flightcoverage and background here and herethe Virgin Galactic VSS Enterprise passed another milestone last Friday. The sub-orbital spaceship set a new 14:30 minute record after being dropped by its mothership, gliding over the Mohave Desert while test pilots confirmed that everything was working. This was the spaceship's fifth release, and things continue to progress nicely.
Eventually tests will start to incorporate the craft's space-age hybrid rocket motor, which thus far has only been tested on the ground. Those trials are going to begin over the next few months, with 2012 still the target for when commercial space tourism becomes a reality. By then the New Mexico Spaceport America, being built for both vertical and horizontal takeoffs, will also be ready.