Virgin Galactic spaceport dedicated

By Phil Plait | October 19, 2011 1:54 pm

On Monday, billionaire space advocate Richard Branson and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez dedicated a new building devoted to commercial access to sub-orbital space: Spaceport America. This will be the new home of Virgin Galactic, Branson’s company that will take people into space.

Technically, this was simply a press event. There were no launches, and there’s nothing really new here. However, I do think this was important. Virgin Galactic is using vehicles built by Scaled Composites, the company that built SpaceShip One, the first private rocket that took a human into space (in 2004). Shortly thereafter they won the Ansari $10 million prize by being the first privately built rocket to get back into space after a 14 day turnaround. Tickets for SpaceShip Two are for sale at a mere $200,000 a piece.

I know. The thing is, a lot of folks have bought those tickets, and this is for real. Two of my friends, Dan Durda and Alan Stern, astronomers with very serious resumes, are holding tickets. They know that a lot of science can be done even on a short suborbital flight, and they’re hoping to be among the first scientists to take that ride. You can read all about that in two articles I wrote last year: Part 1 and Part 2. I’ll note NASA has contracted for research flights on SS2 as well.

While this rocket doesn’t go into orbit — you get a journey 100+ km (60 miles) essentially straight up, to what’s called the Kármán line, the official point where you’re in space — it’s still a big ride, and you’re weightless for several minutes. And who knows? If this business takes off (har har) then there will be more money available to improve on it. And it means there will be more interest in space in general, I think, and that’s good for everyone. How long will it be before private companies like SpaceX sell tickets on their orbital vehicles? They’re already prepping to take crew and supplies up to the Space Station (in fact, Alan Stern created a Facebook page about getting commercial access to the ISS).

NASA’s future is anyone’s guess right now, as I’ve pointed out before. But I’ve also tried to hammer home the idea that NASA is not and should not be the only American-built way of getting to space. I think that private companies will fill a niche in space travel, and the next few years may see far cheaper and more reliable access to space.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Space

Comments (31)

  1. Bob_In_Wales

    Weeeeeeeeeeeee …….

    Does anybody know if they are posting regular updates anywhere of how the development of SS2 is progressing? It has been a while since I heard any updates.

  2. Infinite123Lifer

    I wonder if Virgin Galactic has a layaway plan. Just put down 30% of 200,000 and make the rest of the payments within in a year?

  3. Nick

    Dang! Bad Astronomy is one of my escapes from life in New Mexico and into a greater reality; It was a bummer to see my crazy governor staring at me.

  4. Skepacabra

    We need to get Billy Bob Thorton on this. That dude got a ship into space in, like, two hours in The Astronaut Farmer.

  5. lepton

    I wish I could refer $200k with “mere” as well.

    One more incentive to work harder to make more money. :-)

  6. QuietDesperation

    If I could unload some of my midwest real estate, I could buy a ticket. Thank you, rotten market! :-P Ah well, at least our vacancy rates are low.

    Nice that this is here in the States. This is how you create jobs, folks! New businesses. New ideas. Those ticket prices will pay for some pretty skilled positions. Rich folks buying luxury items is a *good* thing. This is how air travel got started.

    ———-

    How long will it be before private companies like Space X sell tickets on their orbital vehicles?

    About the same time before Boeing selling airplane tickets- probably never. Most likely SpaceX will sell any human rated craft to Virgin and/or competitors, and *they* will sell the tickets.

    ——————

    I wonder if Virgin Galactic has a layaway plan. Just put down 30% of 200,000 and make the rest of the payments within in a year?

    How about a home equity loan? I have enough equity, but, geez… If it were a true orbital insertion and lasted a couple days I could see it. I could actually say with a mostly straight face I have been in space.

  7. QuietDesperation

    It was a bummer to see my crazy governor staring at me.

    Not all that aware of her. Why is she crazy?

  8. Kirk Aplin

    We were supposed to have a commercial space station, and a Pan Am shuttle to take us there in 2001. Glad to see we’re finally making a little progress. (wink, wink)

  9. Bill

    We’re close, Kirk. We’ve got the ISS, and a TV drama about Pan Am…

  10. Arthur Maruyama

    Having read Mary Roach’s “Packing for Mars” I’m not so sure that very many people will want to spend that much time in orbit. Since the Virgin Galactic flights will be only for a few hours and will spend only several minutes in weightlessness, people will not have to do extensive training to perform unglamorous everyday activities like cleaning themselves and, um, elimination.

    I’d still go in a heartbeat.

  11. DigitalAxis

    I saw Richard Garriot speak at DragonCon 2011, and he pointed out that his two-digit-million dollar ride to the ISS on the Russian Soyuz craft actually got him one-digit-million dollars back due to experiments he agreed to bring with him and tend. His argument was that there WILL be a point when a trip to space could pay for itself if you get subsidized by experiments you bring with you… although if space travel becomes more commonplace, they rather quickly won’t be willing to pay quite as much for you to carry an experiment with you. I imagine the end result of that process is companies buying their own flights (or space on their own flights) and sending their employees on trips to conduct experiments for them (“the pay’s not good, but I go into space every month”)

  12. Infinite123Lifer

    Occupy the Kármán Line ;)

  13. Cairnos

    @11 DigitalAxis “(“the pay’s not good, but I go into space every month”)”

    “How’s the new job?”
    “Well the pays OK but you wouldn’t believe the commute!”

  14. Brian Too

    I wonder if the private space business is covered by the TSA? Now or in the future?

    One of the things about commercial space flight is that I’m expecting some bad accidents early on. I’m not doubting the intentions and safety programs of the companies involved. However rocket launches have a history of fairly high failure rates and that includes every launcher in the world.

    An investigative outfit like the Transportation Safety Administration does a good job (all things considered) of investigating accidents and getting changes made that help prevent future accidents. This is the reason that air travel is one of the safest ways of travelling.

    My guess is that the commercial, and especially passenger carrying, rocket business would benefit from some TSA-like oversight.

  15. Tara Li

    @Brian Too: Um – no. The TSA doesn’t do that kind of stuff. The National Transportation Safety Board does it. The TSA just makes people’s lives a heck of a lot worse.

  16. QuietDesperation

    Don’t need the TSA when you can personally vet every passenger extensively.

    I suppose you could get a suicidal millionaire who wants to go out impressively.

  17. Go Branson! Glad to hear this and hope we see it fly soon. 8)

    Saw this on the news last night and thought it looked good. Nice to have a positive human spaceflight story, a good news story full stop. :-)

    Hope it is a lot more successful than the Virgin F1 team currently is too! ;-)

    (Although on checking the wiki-link, turns out Virgin doesn’t actually run that team just sponsors it so, anyhow.)

  18. #14 Brian Too:
    “However rocket launches have a history of fairly high failure rates and that includes every launcher in the world.”

    No, it doesn’t. There have been some launchers which have or had 100% success rates – the best known one being the Saturn V, no less.

  19. Ray

    @ Neil,

    the Apollo 6 launch experienced significant problems, including shutdown of several engines inflight.

  20. uudale

    @ Ray:

    But the Apollo 6 mission itself was still considered a success because the objectives were met. It wasn’t a total launch vehicle failure. I think they used the SPS engine to get the CM to the desired altitude.

  21. Chris A.

    My concern is that commercial delivery of private passengers to/from space will fail for the same reason that we no longer have commercial supersonic flight: The cost is too high and the demand is too low for it to be commercially viable in the long run.

  22. Kirk

    Practicalities or impracticalities aside, if there’s one thing we learned from the reaction to the recent death of Steve Jobs is that we need and appreciate people willing to dream of the possibilities and to do whatever it takes to make those dreams become real.

    Richard Branson is one of those crazy dreamers, so I wish him all the success he can find.

  23. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Kirk : Well said & seconded by me. Very true. :-)

    @21. Ray :

    @ Neil, the Apollo 6 launch experienced significant problems, including shutdown of several engines inflight.

    If I recall right, one of the engines on Apollo 13 shut down prematurely too and Apollo 12 had launch dramas when it was struck by lightning! :-o

    Both these missions were still successful launches because they got their spacecraft up there with Apollo 12 landing the third and fourth men to walk on our Moon – Pete Conrad and lunar artist astronaut Al Bean – whilst Richard Gordon orbited alone above them. Apollo 13 famously experienced later problems rendering it NASA’s finest hour and the greatest space survival story and Tom Hanks movie so far. :-)

  24. Chris Winter

    “While this rocket doesn’t go into orbit — you get a journey 100+ km (60 miles) essentially straight up, to what’s called the Kármán line, the official point where you’re in space…”

    Just a nit: Shouldn’t that be “the von Kármán line”?

    We don’t say “the Allen radiation belts,” after all.

  25. Chris Winter

    Bob in Wales wrote: “Does anybody know if they are posting regular updates anywhere of how the development of SS2 is progressing? It has been a while since I heard any updates.”

    I don’t think space-related stories get much play on the broadcast news media these days. Of course, Sir Richard Branson is no slouch at self-promotion. So you could try here:

    http://www.virgingalactic.com/

    But I think your best bet is:

    http://www.spacetransportnews.com/

  26. Chris Winter

    Skepacabra wrote: “We need to get Billy Bob Thorton on this. That dude got a ship into space in, like, two hours in The Astronaut Farmer.”

    Maybe he could get some advice from Andy Griffith, who launched a business recovering junk from orbit in 1979’s Salvage 1.

    Of course there was that fellow who apparently put together a “Single Stage To Luna” vehicle with just two other people helping in Rocket to the Moon. (And then, just before he launched, the U.S. military confiscated it. “Guided missiles are government business — strictly government!”)

  27. Brandyllyn

    An interesting sidenote to go with the mention of the X-Prize, Richard Branson was actually offered the opportunity to fund the space flight X-Prize before Anousheh Ansari took on the bulk of the funding. Branson didn’t think it was a good investment – but he did step in on the day before it was won and basically buy out the guys who had created Space Ship One.

    Have you looked into the Google Lunar X-Prize? There have been some really awesome breakthroughs there on getting a robot back to land on the moon.

  28. Shalev

    THE FUTURE IS NOW!!1

    I’m glad that this is happening, but personally, after I get my huge lottery win, I’ll wait on X-Cor’s Lynx, which has Rick Searfoss (real-life Space Shuttle pilot) as a test and development pilot. I have safety concerns about the Virgin efforts.

  29. Collin Reddy

    I love this idea? Amazing stuff! But my understanding of space and this aircraft takes you to space? Explain please? I am also waiting to win the LOTTO and this will be the first thing I will love to do. So go guys and and all the best~!

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