Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic, space tourism
Stefano Paltera/AP
Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson, left, and Scaled Composites LLC founder Burt
Rutan wave from the mothership aircraft White Knight Two "Eve" during an unveiling
ceremony at Scaled Composites hangar in Mojave, Calif. (AP)

Is Space Tourism Really on the Horizon?

August 05, 2008 11:12 AM
by Shannon Firth
British tycoon Richard Branson has uncloaked a spacecraft carrier targeted for launch in late 2009. But that doesn’t mean commercial space travel is within reach.

30-Second Summary

On July 28, Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire owner of the megabrand Virgin, and aerospace engineer Burt Rutan revealed a spacecraft carrier called the WhiteKnightTwo. The big reveal marked the start of the flight-test program. The aircraft it is designed to carry and “air-launch,” dubbed the SpaceShipTwo, is reportedly 70 percent complete.

Up to 250 passengers paying $200,000 each are waiting for their six minutes of weightlessness, which the trip promises. Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, described the trip to the Independent: “You get on board … in your entirely carbon-composite spaceship. You’re lifted to 50,000ft. You’re then dropped, a rocket fires, and within six seconds you’re doing the speed of sound, within about 20 seconds you’re at nearly 3,000mph, and you climb up into space and you get up to about 70 miles above the earth.”

In 2004, Rutan and a team, backed by Microsoft’s Paul Allen, launched SpaceShipOne into space and were awarded the $10 million X Prize.

Developing the second passenger spacecraft has not been easy. On July 26, 2007, three people died and three were injured while testing the SpaceShipTwo. Rutan said he wasn’t sure what caused the accident as nitrous oxide—a gas used in the testing—“is not considered a hazardous material.”

Many observers, including celebrities like Madonna and Paris Hilton, have said they’re excited by the thought of space travel. Mike Peathe of the Times of London, however, believes the trip will be “a massive disappointment.”

Headline Link: The upcoming launch

Background: The ups and downs of private space travel

Opinion & Analysis: ‘$200,000 trip to nowhere’

Key Player: Sir Richard Branson

Related Topic: Extraterrestrial ownership


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