Joyride Into Outer Space
Prospective space rovers must impress the folks at Virgin to be accepted into the Future Astronauts programme

Was it only last week that I was likening passenger space flights to science fiction?

Well, it’s time to eat my words—almost. For if you need the perfect last-minute Christmas present for a well-heeled space buff, you can now offer them the prospect of an actual space trip, complete with an experience of weightlessness and the opportunity to see Earth against the black vastness of the universe.

At just a quarter of a million dollars, it even seems like a bargain for what is arguably going to be the most memorable five minutes of their life.

All of this is brought to you by Virgin Galactic, the world’s first (though not only) commercial spaceline. And even if one takes Richard Branson’s grand statement of “democratizing access to space for the benefit of life on Earth” with a pinch of salt, it is difficult not to get excited about this human space flight mission.

Virgin’s prospective astronauts must undergo three days of pre-flight preparation.

Subsequently, they will be taken to space on the suborbital spaceplane SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, winged spacecraft, powered by a hybrid rocket motor that can work as a capsule or a winged vehicle at appropriate parts of its trajectory. It will be launched from its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, a custom-built, four-engine, dual-fuselage jet, at approximately 50,000 feet above Earth’s surface. Once launched, SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor will fire, accelerating to about 3.5 times the speed of sound, propelling it into space.

The spaceplane is expected to travel to beyond the 100km mark, past the Karman Line, the estimated boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.

During the space flight, passengers can expect to experience moderate G-forces. Once the rocket motor is shut down upon reaching outer space, the travellers will experience “true weightlessness” for several minutes, after which they must strap themselves back in for re-entry. Each spaceflight will carry eight people, including two pilots. Upon their return, the passengers will have earned official astronaut status.

Following a serious accident during a test space flight in 2014, in which one pilot died and another suffered major injuries, Virgin have been more circumspect in projecting a take-off date, though the prospects for a 2018 blast-off look good as of now.

Though a date is yet to be set, it hasn’t stopped them from selling tickets. But if you think you can line up at the metaphorical window, get another thought coming.

Prospective space rovers must first impress the folks at Virgin to be accepted into the Future Astronauts programme by filling in an application form telling them about their motivations to go into space. Then, of course, there is the little matter of putting in the downpayment, 10 per cent of $250,000, and the balance 90 days before the trip. Once done, you join a virtual who’s who of a waiting list that includes Stephen Hawking, Anjelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Ashton Kutcher, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber.

Sounds good? To apply or find out more about the Virgin Galactic space mission, head to virgingalactic.com.

Columnist: 
Payal Dhar