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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.
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We’re pretty sure this is the coolest Foursquare badge and check in that you can get – on Friday, NASA astronaut Douglas H Wheelock used it to check in to space. Who knew cellphones worked up there?
He checked in at the International Space Station and, according to Foursquare, became the first human to “use a location-based service from space.” Now there’s something to tell the grandkids.
While he was up there, he also unlocked the new NASA Explorer badge, which will surely become the ultimate Foursquare badge to get. And the good news is that you don’t have to be up in the air to get it – soon, you’ll be able to unlock it when you check in at NASA properties on terra firma. Awesome! That's $200,000 saved right there.
A spaceship that can fly on its own needs a runway for takeoffs and landings, and so Virgin Galactic now has one of those too. The company's head honcho Richard Branson was joined last Friday by Governor Bill Richardson to formally inaugurate the much-anticipated runway of the much-anticipated spaceport in the New Mexico desert. That would be the much-anticipated commercial spaceport, built specifically to shuttle space tourists back and forth.
We're not quite there yet, because the VSS Enterprise - having completed that drop flight two weeks ago - still needs to undergo further work. Rocket testing has to be done, and nobody's actually flown the thing into space yet. But with updates now coming every month and half a month, it's not hard to squint into the future and see a time when space tourism actually becomes a capital-t Thing. The official estimate is 9 months to 18 months, give or take a few.
That's one more landmark in space tourism down, now that Virgin Galactic has successfully completed a free flight and landing of its commercial spaceship VSS Enterprise. The vehicle is the first of five that the company plans to build and up until now it has been hoisted into the air and brought back down by its mothership Eve. Not any more. It was released at 45,000 feet above the Mohave Desert and glided its way down for 11 minutes before making a perfect landing. You can see Virgin's Flickr gallery of the flight here.
The sky is no longer the limit" said Richard Branson, not bothering to add that you'll need to pay $200,000 to get a seat on the aircraft. We covered the industry dynamics behind sub-orbitals like the Enterprise when the ship was unveiled last year, and there are also broader forces pushing ticket costs down. Still, the 100km flights are going to be out of reach for most people for most of the foreseeable future. Plus the first 370 seats have already been reserved to the tune of $50 million total, so there's even a waiting list.
The United Nations wants to take the lead in making contact with ET, and so they're already appointing the people who'll do it. Right now it's a Malaysian astrophysicist named Mazlan Othman, but in the future who knows whom they'll choose. Not that it really matters. There are a lot of ins and outs of international geopolitics, but on an issue as huge as interstellar contact the UN is going to be mostly irrelevant. Contact isn't going to be done by committee, and honestly that's probably a good thing. We don't really want this guy helping to decide who explains the last 200 years of human history to a hyper-intelligent spacefaring race.
This isn't strictly travel-related, although, given how quickly space tourism is heating up, the UN's appointment of a "space ambassador" might end up being more than a punchline. In the meantime we're going to spend a while treating it as a punchline on account of how it's kind of a punchline. And stupid.
Another day, another small reason to be optimistic that space tourism will (someday) become as affordable as any other once-in-a-lifetime vacation. We've written about commercial space travel company Space Adventures a bunch, from their extreme summer vacations to their just-over-six-figures per trip sub orbiters. Now they've passed another major milestone, inking a deal with Boeing to put passengers on board "Crew Space Transportation"100 vehicles to be made by Boeing, with the intention of sending them very speedily into a low Earth orbit.
Prices for the rides haven't been published yet, and Space Adventures has a little bit of time before that becomes an issue. Boeing hasn't even started manufacturing the crafts yet, and no flights are expected until some time around 2015. We're not exactly holding our breath on the price tag either. It's not like these are going to be LCC-level prices, which is closer to our usual wheelhouse.