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The Gateway to Space terminal subtly emerges from the drab scrub of southern New Mexico’s Jordana Del Muerto Desert, like the secret lair of a Roger Moore-era Bond villain: its trailing edge buried in native soil, its undulating ochre roof echoing the line of mountains behind, and its three-story curving glass wall reflecting the ridge opposite.
It’s here that the first civilian astronauts on Virgin Galactic’s space tourism flights will train. And it is from the site’s pristine two-mile runway that the cosmos-bound ark SpaceShipTwo will blast off—horizontally, nestled between the twin booms of the supersonic WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft—on its suborbital missions. Nearly 500 people from 18 to 88 have forked over $65 million in deposits on the $200,000 ticket price. What can you, O brave space pioneer, expect as you prepare for and embark on your historic voyage? The specifics are not yet final, but extensive interviews and a site visit have yielded this detailed preview of the four-day experience.
To prevent your involvement in any surface-to-air collisions, Virgin Galactic built the Gateway adjacent to the White Sands Missile Base, which maintains a no-fly zone hundreds of miles in diameter and upward to “infinity.” (At an elevation of about 5,000 feet, the site also makes space nearly one mile closer.)
Engle, N.M., the nearest town, does not have a stoplight, let alone a five-star hotel. So Virgin is planning to construct a dedicated luxury resort to serve the special needs of you and your family. Likely sites—with panoramic daytime views of the mountains, nighttime views of the stars, and an archeologist-certified lack of haunted Native American burial grounds—have already been selected.
To ensure that this adventure is both overwhelming and overwhelmingly safe, you undergo three days of on-site instruction prior to departure.
Checkup: Pre-screenings ensure that you’re free of acute conditions—like a sense of self preservation—that would preclude participation. There’s also a full medical workup before takeoff.
Workshops: Tutorials cover motion sickness (don’t), emergency procedures (prayer), psychological preparation (Valium), and noise remediation (tinnitus), and provide ample bonding opportunities (hugs).
Zero G: Practical training in weightless hurtling may take place on parabolic flights on WhiteKnightTwo or in an on-site centrifuge.
Get-Ups: Your spacesuit, which will likely be thin, padded, and free of sharp edges—is more like a superhero’s costume than a pressure suit.
Flights are slated to depart at dawn, so the drive from the resort to the Spaceport takes place in an eerie half-darkness.
1. You, five cohorts, and two pilots board SpaceShipTwo—cradled in the ample bosom of WhiteKnightTwo.
2. WhiteKnightTwo takes off horizontally and begins its (relentless, mounting) 30-minute circle climb.
3. On SpaceShipTwo the crew conducts panic-abating exercises and addresses last-minute queries (example: “Is there a God?”)
4. At 50,000 feet, SpaceShipTwo is released and passengers fall into a brief “glide.” WhiteKnightTwo returns to earth.
5. SpaceShipTwo’s motor ignites and your chest is slammed with 3.5 times normal gravitational force as you accelerate instantly to over 750 mph. The pilot now points the ship’s nose up, transferring G-forces to your head as you literally rocket to over 2,500 mph in under 30 seconds.
6. The launch, separation, and rocket ignition are visible to panicked family members on the ground.
7. While remaining in broad daylight, the sky changes from blue to purple and finally—as the ship exits our atmosphere—to a shroud of blackness
8. The “fasten seat belts” sign turns off, and you can leave your seat and enjoy your precious time in zero gravity.
9. The ship’s interior design is not final but will include lots of handholds, room for acrobatics, and big windows for peering into the terrifying infinity (and back at the puny earth).
The engines are cut and you enter the scream-quashing silence of space.
• There is no food or beverage service. Small tubes of water may be provided for toying with the lack of gravity.
• Still and video cameras run constantly inside and outside the ship, and may even be embedded in your spacesuit.
• There is no onboard bathroom. Astronauts are reminded to go before they leave (or wear an adult diaper).
• Total time in training: Three days. Total time in space: about four minutes.
The laws of physics resume their cruel reign and pull the ship back toward earth. As gravity returns, passengers plop back into their seats. The ship rotates its tail into a “feathered wing” configuration, creating the immense drag necessary to prevent an Icarian reentry. Near 80,000 feet, the tail rotates into its original setup, and the ship begins its blissful glide back to earth. SpaceShipTwo will land horizontally.
Flights will initially occur once a week but are planned to increase to once a day, with five spaceships and three carrier aircraft handling these duties.
If you’d like to charter a private space mission—buying out all six seats on SpaceShipTwo for an executive getaway, a long-haul family vacation, or an intergalactic bachelorette party—Virgin may offer a discount, perhaps reducing the total price to around $1 million.