Monday, October 09, 2006

The Future Is Now


Since childhood, I've spent a great deal of time in outer space. I read every science fiction book I could get my hands on at a young age and watched every movie from "Destination Moon" to "Star Wars" in hopes that someday the world they portrayed would be a reality in my lifetime.

And now, here it is. Sort of.

It seems Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines fame plans to offer suborbital spaceflights and later orbital spaceflights to the paying public starting as early as 2008 through his Virgin Galactic enterprise.

The craft, with six passengers and two pilots, will make suborbital flights lasting three hours overall, with about seven minutes of weightlessness. If all goes according to plan, passengers will be able to release themselves from their seats and float around the cabin to truly experience weightlessness.

The future is arriving right on schedule.

Of course, there are a few galactic potholes to consider before we buckle up.

For one thing, the tickets will cost a cool $200,000 a pop. While I've been busy filling my change jars and hoarding aluminum cans, at that rate it may take me 100 years to save up enough cash. I could mortgage the house and let the cash ride on a hedge fund, but that has some serious downside such as divorce. Stowing away may be an option.

Then there is the passenger list. Paris Hilton has reportedly signed up, giving new meaning to the term space cadet.

There seems to be some debate over whether William Shatner, who has long pretended to boldly go where no man has gone before, will be along for the ride. One report said he has. Another quotes him saying that he has turned down a free trip into space because "I'm interested in man's march into the unknown but to vomit in space is not my idea of a good time." Why do I get the feeling that Shatner has spent most of his adult life trying to live down "Star Trek"?

The spaceport concept appears to need some fine tuning. Last year, Branson announced that Virgin Galactic would undertake a joint venture with the New Mexico state government to construct Spaceport America, a $225 million facility.

The first rocket launched from the New Mexico site recently wobbled off course at an elevation of 40,000 feet and crashed. The wreckage wasn't found for nearly a week.

Perhaps anticipating this, Virgin Galactic is in negotiations with Lloyd's of London for flight insurance. This will cover risks to people and structures on the ground near the launch site. However, passengers on suborbital flights are expected to travel at their own risk, at least initially.

None of this deters Sir Richard. Even before the first launch, Branson has plans for orbital space tourism and proposes putting a hotel in space.

Not to be outdone, Space Adventures Ltd. an Arlington, Va., based space tourism company best known for sending paying tourists to the International Space Station, has announced a project named Deep Space Expeditions Alpha to send people around the moon. A five-and-a-half day lunar flight could happen in 2008 or 2009 and cost about $100 million per person.

The company also announced that they would begin offering a 90 minute space walk for about $15 million, in addition to the $20 million required for the visit to the ISS. The space walk would be completed in the Russian designed Orlan space suit. The training for the space walk would require an extra month of training on top of the six months already required.

All of this points to one thing about space travel that never seemed to be an issue in early science fiction. Until the Greyhound Bus people launch, travel to space will be the purview of the same folks who watch their sports from luxury boxes, take their vacations on yachts and live behind gates.

At that rate, the first colony on the moon may be a country club.

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