On Pearl Harbor Day, 2009—64 years after the Japanese attack—the first commercial suborbital space ship was unveiled in Mojave, California. The then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the then New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson officially certified the name of the first of seven SpaceShipTwos to be built: the Virgin Space Ship Enterprise.
Built by Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composits for the world’s first spaceline, Virgin Galactic, the VSS Enterprise is designed to fly to the edge of space, about 68 miles up, where the Earth’s surface is curved and the sky is black. For about five minutes, its passengers will experience weightlessness.
With a maximum speed of but two thousand six hundred miles an hour, this Enterprise will never get into orbit (that takes a speed of nearly eighteen thousand miles per hour). But with the completion of this vehicle’s construction, the beginning of commercial space flight is now upon us. Perhaps by next year–ten years after SpaceShipOne first flew into space to win the Ansari X-Prize–paying customers will start flying on a daily basis to space. They will be traveling to the same place that Alan Shepherd flew alone in a Mercury capsule stuck on top of a Redstone missile in 1961. That first Mercury flight, with the first American in Space, never achieved orbit, either (nor was it designed to). It reached an altitude of 116 miles, a bit higher than that planned for SpaceShipTwo flights. But rather than landing like an airplane, the Mercury capsule, named Freedom 7, parachuted back to earth and plopped down in the Atlantic ocean 302 miles from its launch pad after its fifteen minute flight.
The VSS Enterprise is much larger than that first Mercury capsule. It’s also more than twice as long as SpaceShipOne, that five years ago won the Ansari X-Prize of ten million dollars: sixty feet verses twenty-eight feet. SpaceShipOne had room to carry three people, though it never flew with more than just one, the pilot, while the Enterprise will carry eight people (two pilots and six passengers).
More than three hundred people have already put down their money for a ticket to space aboard a SpaceShipTwo, at two hundred thousand dollars a person. Flying into suborbital space is not for the middle class, yet. So far, only the wealthy can afford it, much as only the wealthy could afford to fly in the early days of air travel. Far more people will be able to afford the tickets on Virgin Galactic, the spaceline that will fly the SpaceShipTwos, than can currently afford the cost of a trip to orbit on a Russian Soyuz to the International Space Station. Currently, the two week trip to orbit will set you back about thirty million dollars. So far, only five people (one of whom did it twice) have managed to pony up that kind of cash.
Assuming that Virgin Galactic is successful with its nascent spaceship service, the price will likely decline and larger vehicles will be built. There is talk of using SpaceShipTwos or their descendents for not just tourist trips for people to experience weightlessness, with take offs and landings to the same spaceport, but of using them for transport. A trip from Los Angeles to Japan, for instance, would take no more than two hours, verses the current fastest trips which take over eleven hours.
Bill Richardson, the now former governor of New Mexico was at the unveiling of the VSS Enterprise because Spaceport America, from which the Enterprise and its sister ships will fly, was then under construction in New Mexico. Its ten thousand foot runway was completed by the summer of 2010, while the Terminal/Hangar Facility that will house the operational offices of Virgin Galactic’s world headquarters were completed just last year.
Virgin Galactic is the space travel company created by Sir Richard Branson in 2004 and at the moment, it is the only customer for Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipTwos. The aircraft that carries the SpaceShipTwo to launch altitude (about 50,000 feet up) is likely to be used for more than just launching the passenger carrying SpaceShipTwo. Virgin Galactic has also been working on a project called LaucherOne, which is designed to work with the Eve Mothership. It would be a two-stage vehicle about the same size as a SpaceShipTwo that could lob small satellites weighing up to 440 pounds into low earth orbit for a price tag of between one and two million dollars.
Soon, space flight will no longer something that only government employees can enjoy.