“Yes, gentlemen,” continued the orator, “in spite of the opinions of certain narrow-minded people, who would shut up the human race upon this globe, as within some magic circle which it must never outstep, we shall one day travel to the moon, the planets, and the stars, with the same facility, rapidity, and certainty as we now make the voyage from Liverpool to New York!” - From the Earth to the Moon - Jules Verne
Virgin Galactic is the first remotely credible space tourism carrier. Sir Richard Branson announced on September 27th 2004 that the newly formed Virgin Galactic will be licensing a design from Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites of SpaceShipOne fame (winner of the X prize after its successful second flight on October 4th, 2004). In retrospect this is an obvious move as Rutan is also designing Virgin Atlantic's Global Flyer which is set to make an attempt in 2005 to break the solo circumnavigation flight record.
The promise of space tourism goes back to the early days of science fiction when Jules Verne puts the words quoted above in the mouth of the fictional French adventurer, Michel Ardan. In my lifetime I have fond memories of Pan American's president Juan Trippe announcing in a live call during Apollo 8 coverage that they would be starting flights to the moon real soon now. Of course, they had no technology to back this up and it was just marketing vaporware, but they nonetheless sold memberships in their First Moon Flights Club from 1968 to 1971. Ronald Reagan is reputed to have had a membership (TWA also had a me too campaign in the same time period, but not nearly as elegant as Pan Am's). In one of the earliest examples of product placement in a movie, Pan Am also had its logo emblazoned on the side of the shuttle to the space station in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey. .
The first Virgin Galactic spacecraft will be called, appropriately enough, the VSS Enterprise in honor of Star Trek to those with short views of history, though I hope it is in honor of all the Navy vessels that have carried that name. As can be expected from the company that brought you airport limousine service for first class passengers, Virgin Galactic will give its passengers a luxurious and innovative experience. There will be training and lectures at a Space Resort in a yet to be named exotic locale. There will also be what they euphemistically call "medical preparation" and I suspect will be flight suitability tests as there will be high G moments in the Mach-4 spacecraft. I can't imagine them allowing a frail octagenerian with a heart condition to take the trip. During the flight will get four minutes of weightlessness and a thousand mile view in every direction. Video, photos and perhaps even a piece of the (non-reusable) rocket motor will be your souvenirs. The first flights are scheduled for 2007. A competing firm called Space Adventures which boasts Buzz Aldrin as a board member claims they will be able to provide suborbital flights as early as 2006.
I do fervently hope they are successful. As a child of the space race, raised on a steady diet of Verne, NASA and Star Trek, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up and I may yet have that chance.
Update March 2006
- The location of the spaceport was announced by Virgin Galactic and the state of New Mexico. The US$200mm facility is to be constructed in a twenty seven square mile piece of state owned desert in Uphams County, New Mexico.
I encourage all readers to follow through to the excellent space tourism and SpaceShipOne nodes for more details.
Retro Future - Fly me to the moon,http://www.retrofuture.com/moontrip.html, 9/30/2004
From the Earth to the Moon, Chapter XIX
,Jules Verne,http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/v/verne/jules/v52fe/chapter19.html, 9/30/2004
Virgin Galactic,http://www.virgin galactic.com, 9/30/2004