Voyeur Magazine | 1 July 2006
By Chris Sheedy
Want a unique travel experience into an undiscovered region? How does suborbital space sound?
UNTIL HIS MOBILE phone rang it was a fairly bland day for Wilson da Silva, 41-year-old editor of COSMOS magazine. It was October 2005 and he was walking through a computer shop, just an average Aussie bloke with a normal job, a journalist who had worked in TV, newspapers and on the web. Then it happened – his phone rang, and by the end of the conversation he was on his way to becoming one of Australia’s first space tourists.
The call was from Dr Alan Finkel, chairman and co-founder of Luna Media, publisher of COSMOS magazine. Finkel had paid in full for two tickets aboard SpaceShipTwo, the spacecraft currently being built by Virgin Galactic. Full payment for the tickets, at around US$200,000 each, earned Finkel and da Silva membership of the Virgin Galactic Founders’ Club – guaranteeing them a place on one of the first 20 suborbital flights when the space airline becomes operational in 2009. Other members include Richard Branson and his family, as well as Star Trek star William Shatner, Aliens star Sigourney Weaver and Deep Impact star Morgan Freeman.
“It’s something I’ve dreamed of since I was a kid. I’d lie on the grass when I was 11 or 12 and imagine myself exploring the galaxy.”
It’s not every day that your boss rings to say he’s bought a ticket for you on a spacecraft, and for da Silva the news is still sinking in. “It’s something I’ve dreamed of since I was a kid,” da Silva grins. “I’d lie on the grass when I was 11 or 12 and imagine myself exploring the galaxy. I also dreamed of going to the South Pole and travelling to the bottom of the ocean. I haven’t been to the South Pole or the bottom of the ocean, but I am going into space!”
Having recently undergone a major shift in public perception, from science fiction to reality, the space tourism race has rounded the final bend and is heading towards the finish line. The race began with the announcement of the Ansari X Prize, billionaire Peter Diamandis’s challenge to private industry. Inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic in The Spirit of St Louis in order to win the US$25,000 Orteig Prize, Diamandis offered US$10 million to the designer of the first privately-built spacecraft to successfully make suborbital flights.
Spacecraft designers emerged from the woodwork, several with serious financial backing. But the design had to become reality, then the spacecraft had to be capable of flying more than 100 kilometres above Earth’s surface – which is generally acknowledged as the edge of Earth’s atmosphere and the beginning of space – twice in 14 days. Oh, it also had to make it back to Earth and land safely.
American aircraft designer Burt Rutan led the pack for the entire race. He was already a legend within his industry, having come up with hundreds of novel aircraft designs. These included Voyager, a propeller-driven aircraft which was the first such machine to fly around the world without stopping or refuelling in 1986, as well as the GlobalFlyer, the first jet to do the same, in 2005.
Richard Branson, who’d financed some of Rutan’s projects, including GlobalFlyer, bought the rights to develop Rutan’s vision into a commercial venture, and Virgin Galactic was born.
Pilot Brian Binnie successfully flew Rutan’s creation, known as SpaceShipOne, to an altitude of 103 kilometres above the Mojave Desert on September 29, 2004, and just five days later, on October 4, he flew to an altitude of 112 kilometres. Both times the spacecraft was piggybacked on another unconventional-looking aircraft, known as WhiteKnight, to an altitude of around 16km before its rockets thrust it the rest of the way into space.
SpaceShipOne was designed as a three-person spacecraft, and it’s currently being scaled up so that SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and seven paying passengers. Many would baulk at the thought of buying such an expensive ticket for a seat on something that seems so dangerous, but Dr Finkel has supreme confidence in the Virgin Galactic philosophy of ‘less is more’.
“I’m an engineer so I look at the way the space ship is being designed. NASA space shuttles are made up of about 4.5 million parts, but SpaceShipTwo will be made up of only 10,000 to 30,000 parts. There’s great safety in simplicity.”
“I’m an engineer so I look at the way the space ship is being designed,” he says. “They’re designing a spacecraft which is as simple as it can possibly be while maintaining a high degree of functionality. NASA space shuttles are made up of about 4.5 million parts, but SpaceShipTwo will be made up of only 10,000 to 30,000 parts. There’s great safety in simplicity.”
After a few days of relatively simple training, the blast out of the Earth’s atmosphere will provide space tourists with the thrill of a lifetime. At an altitude of more than 16,500 metres the mothership will drop SpaceShipTwo, allowing the small spacecraft to light its rockets and, for the next 90 seconds, passengers will be pinned in their seats as they are hurtled into space at three times the speed of sound.
In the inky blackness, the engines will be cut and the amateur astronauts will enjoy around seven minutes of weightlessness and one of the finest views in the universe, out of their very own porthole. They will be able to look down on the planet from which they came, stare out into the dark reaches of space, and will be free to float around the cabin. Then comes re-entry.
Unlike NASA’s space shuttles, which slam into the Earth’s atmosphere, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo will slow itself down by deploying its wings so its shape resembles a shuttlecock. When it reaches an altitude of around 16,000 metres its wings will fold back into a more conventional aircraft configuration, and it will glide back to the airport.
“If you think about it a certain way, it’s not that amazing, it’s just a joy ride into suborbital space,” da Silva says. “I’m sure people felt a similar way when the first flights operated across the Atlantic. But what is really special is that this is a door opening into the kind of flying that will remove some of the current time barriers.
“With this technology you’ll be able to do Sydney to London in three hours. You could go to London for a long weekend!”
PACK YOUR MOONBOOTS
A trip on Virgin Galactic to sub-orbital space will set you back a measly US$200,000. A week or so on the International Space Station (ISS) costs a whopping US$20 million. But did you know you can even buy yourself a flight around the moon? Tickets are available from US space tourism specialists Space Adventures, who brokered the deals that have already seen two space tourists travelling to the ISS. The trip around the moon will set you back a cool US$100 million and you can choose to take the direct flight to the dark side of the moon or have a leisurely stop-off at the ISS to break up the trip. You will take off from sunny Kazakhstan and, after a quick spin around the moon in a capsule no larger than a family car, blast back through Earth’s atmosphere on day nine for a bumpy parachute landing. Add an extra 10 to 14 days for the ISS option, which allows the pay-as-you-go astronauts to get out and stretch their legs on the way. Buckle up!
THE SPACE RACE
Virgin Galactic, having already sold us$18 million worth of tickets, appears to be the clear leader in the race for space tourism. but who are the other competitors? Canadian company PlanetSpace has sold US$4 million worth of tickets, and plans to make old technology new again. The team has borrowed ideas from the V2 rockets unleashed by the Germans in World War II and the spacecraft are designed with a built-in escape module in case the main engines suffer any problems.
British engineer Alan Bond’s company, Reaction Engines, has developed a unique engine that burns air at low altitudes, switching to oxygen at higher altitudes. This means it doesn’t need a mothership and can fly from ground to space in one flight. The American company SpaceX has built a spacecraft known as the Falcon-1, which carries small satellites. The model is currently being redeveloped into a new design called Falcon-5, which is intended to carry several passengers plus crew. If this particular space race has a dark horse, it’s Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who has bought an enormous ranch in Texas where he and his high-tech Blue Origin team are designing and testing their own spacecraft in complete privacy!