For the very wealthy, tourist trips to space should soon become a new way to blow a large chunk of change.
While outfits such as SpaceX and Blue Origin tend to get the most column inches regarding proposed space tourism services, Virgin Galactic has also been busy working on its own system to give paying customers the ride of a lifetime.
With a view to launching its first space tourism flight as early as June 2020, Virgin Galactic has just relocated its SpaceShipTwo passenger craft, VSS Unity, to its commercial headquarters at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
VMS Eve, the aircraft that will carry Unity on the first part of its journey toward space during the tourism trips, flew the passenger craft from Mojave, California, home to the company’s manufacturing facilities.
Watch SpaceShipTwo Unity and our mothership, VMS Eve, land at the Gateway to Space, Spaceport America, New Mexico and complete another vital step on the path to commercial service. Read about the next steps for Unity’s flight test program here. https://t.co/EYrFhjmrKd pic.twitter.com/HJeMqUxpza
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) February 14, 2020
Virgin Galactic said the three-hour flight gave it the chance to evaluate VSS Unity at high altitude and cold temperatures, as well as a chance to carry out more pilot training.
The team has been working on its space tourism project since 2004, though the endeavor suffered a serious blow in 2014 when the VSS Enterprise space plane crashed during a test flight, killing one of the two pilots. After a period of review and reflection, Virgin Galactic returned in 2016 with the new VSS Unity aircraft before making the first of several successful test flights to the edge of space in 2018.
A seat on the space plane for the 90-minute trip will set you back an eye-watering $250,000. The experience will include being carried high in the sky by the carrier plane before Unity’s rocket engines fire up to take you toward the generally agreed boundary of where space begins, around 62 miles up. Besides the breathtaking views, you’ll also experience a brief period of weightlessness before returning to Earth for a runway landing.
In time, Virgin Galactic says it wants to operate a range of vehicles from multiple locations to cater to the demands of the growing space-user community, including “transporting passengers to Earth-orbiting hotels and science laboratories or providing a world-shrinking, transcontinental service.”
Final stages of preparation
The relocation of VSS Unity to Spaceport America means the 100-strong team can now begin work on the final stages of its flight test program, starting with a number of captive carry and glide flights from the new operating base.
After that, the team will move on to rocket-powered test flights from Spaceport America to confirm VSS Unity’s readiness for its first commercial spaceflight operations.
As we mentioned at the top, Virgin Galactic isn’t the only company looking to launch space tourism flights in the near future. Blue Origin, owned by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, is developing a reusable rocket system for the same purpose, with one of its test flights last year giving future passengers an idea of what to expect from its 10-minute space ride. Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s SpaceX also has a plan to send a Japanese billionaire and eight artists on a trip to the moon and back, possibly in 2023.
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