Today is [Space] Tourism Tuesday! This is something I've made up as an excuse to give a basic high-level overview of a really cool space tourism company!
Wait, what is a "space tourism" company?
Space tourism is a relatively new and exciting industry. Basically private for-profit companies are offering rides to space….as long as you’re willing to pay the hefty price tag! Each of these companies is going about it in a different way. The technology, the goal, and even the ticket price are all different. So let’s go over (arguably) the front-runner in this field, Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.
What is Virgin Galactic doing?
For the low low price of $250,000, Virgin Galactic will send you to sub-orbital space where you can experience six minutes of weightlessness and view the Earth's curvature against the beautiful backdrop of space. Yes, that’s a cool quarter of a million bucks for about five minutes of floating and the ability to drop "Ya, I guess I'm technically an Astronaut". While this certainly sounds incredible, who can afford this? Plenty of people apparently because they have already sold more than 700 tickets – and they haven’t even flown their first tourist yet!
How are they doing it?
This isn't your mother’s rocket launch. The ride consists of two vehicles, a plane and a spacecraft, which are initially connected to each other. This airplane/spacecraft duo take off like a normal airplane from a runway. The airplane here is called WhiteKnightTwo and it flies the spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, to an altitude of 50,000 feet. This is about twice the altitude that you fly in a commercial airline.
At this point, SpaceShipTwo detaches from the airplane and its rockets are fired, accelerating the passengers inside to about four times the speed of sound. The spacecraft then takes these passengers the rest of the way to space*, where the engines fall silent and the passengers inside float weightless for about six minutes.
After this, the spacecraft can actually pivot its wings for a controlled reentry back down to Earth. It essentially glides down and then lands on a runway like a regular airplane. All in all, it's a really beautiful process..
The date for Virgin Galactic's first tourist flight keeps getting pushed back, but Branson is claiming the first one will be this December. And better yet? He insists he'll be sitting in one of the passenger seats.
Check out this animated video to watch the entire process:
What do you think?
I am personally so excited that organizations other than the government are investing in space exploration! Virgin Galactic and other space tourism companies are making the space industry so exciting today! This is our generation’s space race – and this one’s not fueled by the threat of war. Yay!
But let’s be honest...most of us will never be able to afford this. It’s basically an exciting new way for rich people to spend their money. But, what if someone offered you a free ticket. Would you go? I’m not entirely sure. I would probably want to wait until they’ve gotten a few hundred safe flights under their belt. I’m certainly a thrill seeker, but there’s no way around it - space is a dangerous game.
What about you? Let me know what you'd choose via twitter: @EmCalSpaceGal.
*There is not a physical line where Earth's atmosphere ends and "space" begins. Even so, there has been some controversy over whether Virgin Galactic will technically send passengers to "space." This is because, at this point, they can only guarantee a peak altitude of 50 miles above the Earth's surface. Most international organizations typically define space at the Van Karman line at 62 miles above sea level. This is the altitude where Earth's atmosphere becomes too thin to support aerodynamic flight. A typical aircraft would have to travel at orbital velocity to accomplish sufficient lift at this altitude.
However, not everyone defines space at 62 miles. The US Air Force, for example, uses the line between the mesosphere and thermosphere - at only 50 miles - as the line of "space."
I would say this distinction is a bit silly. Either way, Virgin Galactic's passengers will experience the incredible feeling of weightlessness and view Earth's curvature against the background of space outside their window.