When you see Earth from space, you get a heightened perception of the planet we live on – the fragility of it, the beauty of it, the wonder of it. You just can’t get that feeling from pictures or movies. When you see it with your own eyes, especially when you’re in zero gravity, it seems a revelation occurs which effects you for the rest of your life.
A trip into space with Virgin Galactic starts at “Spaceport America” in New Mexico. You spend three days there for preparation and training, including positive and zero g-force acclimitisation. On Day 4, you head into space. Takeoff is from a runway with the spaceship attached to a specially designed carrier aircraft.
At 50,000 feet, the spaceship is released from the carrier aircraft. There will be slight sinking feeling in your stomach as the spaceship falls away into a glide. Then the pilots kick the hybrid rocket motor – the world’s largest – into gear, accelerating the spaceship to the speed of sound in about eight seconds.
Thirty seconds later, you’re travelling vertyically upwards at four times the speed of sound, feeling the force of about three-and-a-half Gs. Outside, the sky changes from blue through purple and eventually to black as you leave Earth’s atmosphere.
After around 90 seconds, the pilots switch off the rocket motor and everything goes silent, because although you’re still zipping into space there’s no atmosphere outside and no mechanical noises from the inside. And you’re in zero gravity – you weigh nothing at all.
At this point, you’re free to float away from your seat. You can look back at Earth from the blackness of space, through the spaceship’s large windows. Ask any astronaut: That’s the life-changing part of space travel. You can see the thin blue line of the atmosphere around Earth’s surface, clouds, oceans, and land masses. After a few minutes of enjoying the view and the zero g, gravity takes hold and the spaceship starts to drop back towards Earth.
While in space, the spaceship’s tail sections rotate upwards into what we call the feathered or shuttlecock configuration, a unique mechanism to ease re-entry. The spaceship in this mode uses atmospheric drag for a heat free and carefree re-entry without the need for pilot or computer input or special thermal protection. At 70,000 feet, the tail sections return to the original “aircraft” configuration for a fantastic high altitude glide back to the runway – disembarking passengers – now astronauts – around 2 hours after boarding.
Just as in the early days of commercial flights, the price today for commercial space travel is relatively high. However, as the industry matures and competition emerges as well as economies of scale, we would expect prices to fall.
We want to open up space for people by making space travel safe and affordable. If we can get this first step right, we would expect rapid innovation as the sector attracts more private funding and R and D. We would hope to compliment our sub-orbital trips with orbital travel, allowing perhaps a couple of weeks at a space hotel and perhaps eventually transcontinental space travel – using spaceships to go for example from London to Sydney in a couple of hours. All of these things are possible within a fairly short time frame thanks to the truly transformative technology we are testing which we believe will prove that it is possible to take thousands of people into space and back safely and within a commercially viable framework.
Photos courtesy of Virgin Galactic.