Sunday 18 February 2018

Are you ready for blast-off?

High flyer: The Virgin Galactic VSS Enterprise will be taking passengers into space by the end of 2011
High flyer: The Virgin Galactic VSS Enterprise will be taking passengers into space by the end of 2011

Gemma O'Doherty

As air travel goes, it's about as glamorous as a Ryanair flight to Luton. Worse still, there are no toilets on board, so passengers will have to wear a nappy, the turbulence will be terrifying, and you only get to spend 20 minutes in the final destination.

Still, it's a small price to pay when you're a space nut who has waited all their life to boldly go to the final frontier. As for the views from the cabin, well, they really will be out of this world.

Last month, day trips to the heavens came within closer grasp of the ordinary traveller as another milestone in the world's biggest civilian space programme was reached. In its first test flight, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic VSS Enterprise soared into the skies above the Mojave Desert in California, making the dream of commercial space tourism an imminent reality.

By the end of next year, the space plane will be taking passengers 62 miles above earth to the cusp of outer space, where they can gaze down on the curvature of their home planet and experience the bizarre floating sensation of weightlessness.

Powered by a single rocket motor, the spaceship will be flown by a crew of two and carry six passengers at a time. It will be transported to a height of 50,000 feet by a carrier plane before breaking free from its mothership and blasting through the atmosphere at a speed of 4,200km/h.

Its return journey -- the most hazardous of the trip -- will be made possible by a so-called 'feathered re-entry system' which turns the spacecraft into a kind of shuttle-cock, allowing it to glide back down to the spaceport from where it took off in New Mexico.

Despite recessionary woes back on earth, the fare of $200,000 (€147,000) per person to ride on Branson's new toy hasn't put off would-be space travellers. At least six seats are currently being booked a month, and a number of Irish space enthusiasts have already signed up.

Racing drivers Michael Schumacher and Niki Lauda have also booked a seat, as have Star Trek actor William Shatner and motoring guru Jeremy Clarkson. A lottery will decide who the six will be on the first commercial flight.

Amateur astronauts must be over 18, have a good heart and undergo G-force simulation to see how they cope with the process. A paraplegic Dutch woman in her 70s has already passed all the necessary tests.

Right now, the risk of going into space is on a par with climbing Everest. One in 100 people doesn't come home, but by the time the testing phase is finished next year, the hazards will be akin to flying in a small aircraft.

This autumn, NASA will retire America's fleet of space shuttles. President Obama has also cancelled its moon exploration programme, diverting funding on new technologies that will focus on Mars and near-earth asteroids and leaving astronauts having to hitch a ride into space on commercial vehicles such as Virgin's craft.

After the first three years, ticket prices are expected to fall to below $50,000 (€36,000), by which time sub-orbital technology could well have transformed the way we travel.

Experts believe that once they are able to fly into near-earth orbit, future airplanes could get from Dublin to Sydney in less than two hours.

Irish Independent

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