Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire businessman who founded Virgin Galactic, which plans to offer the first totally commercial space flights for paying customers, announced that the first flights will take place “within eighteen months.”
Branson’s space ship, SpaceShipTwo, will take paying passengers on a suborbital jaunt where, briefly, they will experience microgravity and breath-taking views of the Earth from space. SpaceShipTwo will be launched from an altitude of 16 kilometers above the Earth by an aircraft dubbed WhiteKnightTwo. After the suborbital flight, SpaceShipTwo will land horizontally in the same manner as an airplane.
Virgin Galactic was founded in the wake of the winning of the Ansari X Prize in 2004 by Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, which conducted a number of suborbital jaunts, including two within a fixed time, to qualify for the prize. Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, built SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo.
Hundreds of the well-heeled and adventurous have already put down deposits against a fare of about $200,000 for the adventure ride of a lifetime.
While the first commercial flight of SpaceShipTwo is still in the future, Sir Richard Branson is already looking to the future of space tourism:
“Branson also has visions of establishing hotels in space, which well-heeled tourists can use as a base for shuttle flights over the moon.
“‘We are looking at hotels in space. We love the moon,’ the tycoon said, adding that he was also interested in launching “small satellites into space” for the benefit of schools and universities.”
A “space hotel” developed by Branson would almost certainly compete with a private space station being built by Bigelow Aerospace. It is also uncertain whether Branson intends to develop his own orbital space craft to access his planned space hotel, or lease space craft being developed by SpaceX and Boeing with US government funding.
It is uncertain what Branson meant by his reference to the Moon. Recently, US President Barack Obama proposed canceling the Constellation program to return American astronauts to the Moon, placing that dream effectively in limbo. A private effort to build a “Lunar Hotel” or even conduct tourist trips to the Moon would be by orders of magnitude more challenging than the current suborbital program or even the concept of a space hotel in low Earth orbit. Such a scheme is likely outside the reach of a purely private entity for the foreseeable future. With President Obama’s ban on Americans returning to the Moon, Branson could not expect US government investment in any venture he might undertake.
On the other hand, Branson’s musings may achieve more relevance if and when a future US president changes direction yet again and sets American sights back on the Moon. Virgin Galactic could then be a commercial partner in a renewed and revamped return to the Moon effort.
Sources: Virgin to launch space tourism in 18 month, AFP, September 27th, 2010
Virgin Galactic Wants You to Fly into Space, Mark R. Whittington, Associated Content, September 14th, 2010
Bigelow’s Inflatable Commercial Space Station (Video), Mark R. Whittington, Associated Content, June 8th 2010
What Prospect of Returning to the Moon by Commercial Means?, Mark R. Whittington, Associated Content, September 20th, 2010