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THE WRITE STUFF: Editor Boldly Goes Where Tourists Dream to Tread

The Daily Telegraph | 31 December 2009

Wilson da Silva, among the first Australians to sign up as passengers on Virgin Galactic

HE’S ABOUT TO UNDERTAKE probably the most daring trip possible, becoming one of the world’s first space tourists. But Wilson da Silva says there’s only one thing he’s worried about.

“If Paris Hilton’s going, I don’t want to be on the same flight,” the science nut said at his home in Sydney’s inner west yesterday. “Can you imagine? She’d be a nightmare.”

“If Paris Hilton’s going, I don’t want to be on the same flight. Can you imagine? She’d be a nightmare.”

Unfortunately, da Silva, editor of science magazine COSMOS, won’t get to choose his company for the two and a half hour, US$200,000 trip.

He and magazine backer scientist Alan Finkel – among the 14 Australians already paid up for the 110km sky journey – will have to draw lots like everyone else.

Not that the company has much to do with it. They are realising – no doubt like Ms Hilton and each of the 300 people worldwide booked in – a dream that was all but given up as government-backed space programs dwindled from the heyday of the 1960s space race.

“There are people who grew up with the space program and thought they were going to get holidays in space and they didn’t,” Mr da Silva said. But along came Burt Rutan, the American engineer who designed tourist-friendly SpaceShipOne for a science competition, and entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, who saw the whole thing as a business opportunity.

Then, earlier this month, Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic unveiled the enlarged SpaceShipTwo, a vehicle capable of carrying six passengers and two pilots on “suborbital ballistic flights” relatively safely.

Virgin promises to conduct at least 50 test flights, with the first commercial trips expected in 2011 from its spaceport in California’s Mojave Desert. Apart from society heiress Hilton, Brad Pitt and Star Trek luminary William Shatner are rumoured to have snapped up seats.

The first flight is expected to be Sir Richard’s own family – mother, father, son and self. His wife, though, has apparently refused. Otherwise, those taking part include the very rich, the very interested in space and those who still remember watching the first man on the moon in 1969.

Incidentally, while the space safaris don’t get up quite that far, they do closely follow the trip taken by the first American in space, Alan Shepard. Like him, da Silva and crew won’t see Australia from space. But they will see almost all of North America and Mexico.

Alan Finkel, Wilson da Silva, Richard Branson and Brett Godfrey – the first Australian passengers of Virgin Galactic's spaceliner service, at a news conference in Sydney

Money aside, the flights are open for almost anyone, no matter their age or fitness level. Already 200 people (including da Silva) have sat the intense three-day training program to prepare for speeds of up to 4,200km/h. Of those, just four have been turned away for medical reasons, according to Gil McLaughlin, owner of three Harvey World Travel outlets that are accredited “space agents”.

“The biggest thing we’re concerned about is people will have sensory overload during the experience and not remember what it was like,” he said. “It’s certainly going to be a saturation experience.”

“Thirty years from now, nobody will be flying 24 hours to London. If you’re going to the other side of the planet: suborbital. Always.”

Others have voiced concerns that the enterprise is nothing but a high-pollution folly for the idle rich. But da Silva believes the trips will produce no more carbon than an economy flight from New York to London.

He also predicted that the flights would change international air travel – in terms of comfort and environmental friendliness – by cutting all flights to less than three hours. “Thirty years from now, nobody will be flying 24 hours to London,” he said. “If you’re going to the other side of the planet: suborbital. Always.”

But most important, he said, was the opportunity to simply see the Earth from afar. “You’re going into space, which is something that only 500 people have done in all of human history,” he said. “To look down on your own world from above. wow, that would be very moving.

“It’s the opening of a new frontier.”


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