Virgin Galactic: Space is much closer than you think

Space: the final frontier, one small step and whatever other clichéd expression you might care to think of. Little by little though, it’s becoming something that could be within the reach of ordinary people.

You’ve probably heard of Virgin Galactic. After all, it’s been kicking around for a few years now. Hell, you might have forgotten about it, or dismissed it as one of company founder Richard Branson’s pipe dreams, never to be realised.

Thing is it’s closer to making its first space than you might think and it’s looking for passengers in emerging markets. The latest country to get an official Space Agent is South Africa.

Vanessa Rothery is Virgin Galactic’s 141st Space Agent, and her job entails a little more than convincing people to spend US$200 000 for a flight on a craft that is currently still being tested.

Unlike a cruise ship, say, people are going to want to know how the machine hurtling them at faster than the speed of sound toward space actually works. Rothery therefore had to undergo intensive training to make sure she could get the job.

People like Rothery are the reason that over 500 people around the globe have signed up to be astronauts.

If anything, says, Virgin Galactic’s commercial director Stephen Attenborough, that so many people have signed up proves that the project is “not a Richard Branson PR stunt”.

Further proof is in the fact that the space craft and the specially designed plane it launches from have been tested multiple times, and that the former is set to have rockets strapped to it for the first time later this year.

Virgin Galactic’s journey from idea to where it is now has been a long one. It all started back when Branson was a child, at the dawn of the space era. Like many of his generation he was promised that it wouldn’t be that long.

Sometime in the 1990s, when he was well on his way to mega-wealth, Branson realised that no government agency was going to send him to space. So he registered the name Virgin Galactic and decided to start building a company. This was typical of the “screw it, let’s do it” attitude that the billionaire sometimes displays.

Things weren’t Space may, however, have remained a pipe dream if Virgin’s quest for a plane capable of flying around the world – to be flown by adventurer Steve Fossett — hadn’t brought it into contact with a man who was also looking to get into space.

Burt Rutan, who owns one of the world’s preeminent aeronautical and design companies in Scaled Composites, was looking to win the Ansari X Prize. The prize promised US$10-million to anyone who could get a private plane in space.

In 2004, Rutan’s Spaceship One did exactly that, bedecked in Virgin branding.

Spaceship Two, which will eventually take the paying passengers up, features a lot of the same tech as its predecessor, including the unique folding wings, which turn the craft into a shuttlecock for re-entry and a glider for landing.

The overwhelming sentiment from the Virgin team is that the Galactic spacecraft is a triumph of private business over of government. They also seem to think there are a host of business opportunities out there aside from space tourism, including science experiments, getting satellites into orbit, and eventually long-haul travel.



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