8 January 2005
Media - Vehicles (Good)
Space Ship One and Space Ship Two
A media review
by G B Leatherwood
by G.B. Leatherwood

“When I got off the plane after one of the flights, there was a lady on the runway who handed us a check for $190,000 saying she wanted to be the first one to go.” Mike Melvill, pilot of the flight that claimed the Ansari X-Prize for Burt Rutan and Paul Allen. (USA Today)

“I am a travel agent and want to know if Virgin Galactica will be paying travel agencies a commission and where and when do we sign up with them. We will start selling now.” (Space Tourism Initiative)

Sigourney Weaver books flight with Virgin Galactica. “We’ll be happy to re-unite her with Alien,” says Virgin Enterprises Richard Branson. (Space Tourism Initiative)

To say that the victory of SpaceShipOne (SS1) in claiming the X-Prize has captured the world's attention is an understatement. Type “SpaceShipOne” into your Google search box and you’ll get 55,800 hits. That’s right—55,800. And every time you look the number will increase.

A random sampling revealed that the interest in the next step into space tourism is very high, and not only among the bloggers and space nuts. Major articles appeared in Business Week and the Washington Times.

The focus is on the intention of Richard Branson to have SS1 designer and builder Burt Rutan build and launch the first of at least five SpaceShipsTwo (SS2) (or Three) in winter 2007 or spring 2008. SS2 is to carry five passengers and one pilot in a body about the size of a Gulfstream V business jet. And according to blog rumors, both Branson and Rutan will be aboard this first flight along with their fathers to demonstrate the safety and comfort of their craft.

But not everyone is convinced that SS2 will be ready by that time. For one thing, the FAA and the US Congress still need to develop the proper safety regulations. For another, Branson wants SS2 to have the same accommodations as first class on his Virgin Atlantic airline, that is, luxurious.

Marco Caceres, senior space analyst at Teal Group, an aerospace research and consulting firm, said in the Business Week article, “[SpaceShipOne] flew to space three times, and each time had significant problems. They certainly need to work out the kinks.” He also thinks the time line is far too ambitious, and the cost estimate is probably too low. “The technology is complex,” he said. “All it takes is a few delays, and [costs] go sky high... I’d be very impressed if they get to the point where they’re launching three or four times a year.” Virgin officials disagree.

Amid all the serious discussions and factual descriptions of estimated revenue, flight schedules, and numbers of potential tourists with nearly $200,000 to spend on a two-hour suborbital jaunt, some humor surfaces. In one widely circulated blog, "Coding in Paradise," Brad Neuberg quotes Burt Rutan as being quite flexible about what passengers will be able to do on their SS2 flights:

“Instead of shoulder harnesses and tight seatbelts,” Rutan said, “we want this roller-coaster type bar that you fold out of the way and you can float around. This experience is going to have very few restrictions on what you can do because these payloads are doing it for fun, and every person has a different idea of what fun is.“

He goes on: “If you want to pull down your science tray and do whatever you brought along for an experiment, or play with your cat—you have bought the ride, you paid for it.” And if a young man and woman want to rent the whole vehicle to do whatever it is that two young people might want to do in free fall? Well, they’re paying for it!

So the intention is to have fun in luxury, and maybe land somewhere else besides takeoff. That’s in the planning, too.

Bought your ticket yet? Perhaps you should do it now, or you may have to wait in line. Depending on which report you see, anywhere from 7,000 to 11,000 people have already signed up.

The best way to get the latest commentary, both serious and irreverent, is to do your own sampling of those 55,800 entries (in several languages, by the way) on the Internet. I guarantee you’ll find out more than you ever wanted to know—and you’ll have a great time doing it!
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G B Leatherwood 8 January 2005
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