Council for the Advancement of Science Writing

Flights to space for tourists likely by next year

by Meghan Pryce | 

Space tourism venture Virgin Galactic has secured more than 650 customers and $130 million in revenue, the company’s chief executive officer told a group of science writers Nov. 3.

The first public flight of its reusable SpaceShipTwo vehicle is expected to launch next year, carrying passengers to briefly touch space—which starts at 60 miles above Earth—and then returning them to Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America in New Mexico.

George T. Whitesides made his comments at CASW's New Horizons in Science, part of the ScienceWriters2013 meeting in Gainesville, Florida. He discussed Virgin Galactic’s flight plans and the future of space in general.

ADDITIONAL COVERAGE

The lovely planet

His talk opened with a compelling image, a full-disk view of Earth taken from space by the Apollo 17 mission.

He then posed these questions: What if everyone who wanted to had the opportunity to see that view with their own eyes? What impact would it would have on the world?

A total of 542 people have experienced looking down at our planet from space, he noted, adding that he thinks this figure is too small.

“To me, that experience of looking down on our planet is a profound experience that I look forward to sharing with many people over the course of the coming years,” he said.

Virgin Galactic currently is gearing up with test flights to take paying tourists on a five- to six-minute sub-orbital flight on SpaceShipTwo. Tickets for this excursion will cost $250,000 a seat. Passengers will feel the intense effects of gravity at launch and then later get out of their seats and view the scenery from the spacecraft’s window.

Virgin Galactic aims to eventually house two carrier aircrafts and five space ships at the same time at Spaceport America. The company is also working on building a training center for passengers there. At recent trainings at other sites, his customers ranged in age from 18 to 88, he said. About 90 percent of the people handled the intense experiences well.

Space travel for the rest of us?

Space need not be a place experienced only by astronauts or Superman, he quipped. Whitesides noted that the experience of spaceflight often has a profound impact on astronauts, as described in Frank White’s 1987 book Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution.

Over time, Virgin Galactic plans to bring the cost of their flight experience down to give more people the opportunity to go into space. The spaceflight experience could give humanity a more planetary outlook on ways to resolve our shared issues and problems.

“I think that it would be one thing that helps move us towards a time where we’ll be able to address some of these challenges,” Whitesides said. “That’s what excites me at the end of the day.”

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Meghan Pryce is a junior journalism major with a concentration in psychology at the University of Florida. She has a passion for telling compelling stories and hopes to pursue a career in the magazine industry after graduation. Follow her on Twitter at @megpryce or email her at [email protected].