Got $200,000 lying around? If so, you could be among the first commercial space travelers.
The U.S. space program may have stalled, but that hasn't stopped billionaire mogul Richard Branson from advancing his vision of commercial space flight. This week, at a glitzy event in the windswept Mojave desert, Branson unveiled the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo -- billed as the world's first commercial spacecraft -- a sleek, plane-like vehicle that will carry six passengers and two pilots on a journey 65 miles above Earth.
Branson's company, Virgin Galactic, intends to sell space trips which will include a 2 1/2-hour flight and five minutes of weightlessness for $200,000 a ticket. It's unclear whether airsickness bags will be available. Let's hope so.
Branson intends to launch the first flight -- which he says he and his family to will take -- in 2011, after a number of safety checks. The vessel measures 60 feet long -- about the length of a Falcon 900 private jet. SpaceShipTwo will hurtle into the sky under the power of its twin-fuselage mothership, White Knight Two, and then fly free at about 50,000 feet. The ship's own rocket engine will then burn a combination of nitrous oxide and solid fuel to boost it more than 65 miles above Earth.
Brilliant Business Plan or Billionaire's Boondoggle?
"Isn't this the sexiest spaceship ever?" Branson exclaimed at a star-studded event attended by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, according to press reports from the unveiling. The two politicians christened the craft the VSS Enterprise -- as in Virgin Space Ship -- by breaking champagne bottles on the craft's nose.
Sexy though the craft may be, the question remains: Is Branson's venture a viable commercial proposition or just the product of a billionaire's daydreams?
"It's probably a combination of both," George Washington University space policy scholar John Logsdon tells DailyFinance. "Branson is a risk taker and a very successful entrepreneur who has made a lot of money out of some of his ventures -- not all -- but some."
"There are a lot of billionaires and millionaires in the world," Logsdon says. "Will this ever reach the mainstream consumer? Probably not. But there are many ongoing financially successful experiences that are out of the reach of the mainstream consumer. For the foreseeable future, this will be one of them."
Among Branson's first publicly revealed clients is actress Victoria Principal, the former star of the popular 1980s television show Dallas. "Going into space fulfills many desires I have of seeing the planet, going fast, going someplace very few people have been -- and hopefully coming back down!" Principal told People Magazine.
"I'm a passenger in something that is pioneering," she said. "This will become to our great-grandchildren what Wilbur and Orville Wright were to you and me."
The Ever-Present Risk of 'Going Out of Control'
One thing that will keep the price of the trip relatively high, Logsdon said, are the costs associated with mitigating the risks of spaceflight, which are significant.
"You're working through a very demanding environment going through three to four times the speed of sound," Logsdon said, adding that there is the ever-present risk of "going out of control."
SpaceShipOne, the current craft's predecessor, "went out of control on one of its missions and it was only the skill of the test pilot that saved the ship," Logsdon said.
One of the craft's innovations, he said, is a unique "feathering" wing design that allows the craft to descend like a shuttlecock, increasing drag and slowing the ship down as it re-enters the Earth's atmosphere.
Is Space Big Enough for Two Billionaires?
Branson says that he has received 300 $20,000 deposits from prospective passengers. But it remains to be seen if there will be enough of a demand to sustain a long-term business.
"It is a high risk business proposition, but Branson is known for taking risks," Lodgson said. "The question will be: Is the pool of non-mainstream affluent consumers large enough?"
Other entrepeneurs are betting that the answer will be yes. Amazon.com chieftain Jeff Bezos is developing a "similar kind of capability using a different design," Lodgson said. "I'm sure that Virgin Galactic hopes to soak up all of the available market. The second entrant will have to offer a lower price and better product, just like in any business."
Virgin Galactic plans to offer the commercial space flights about SpaceShipTwo out of a taxpayer-funded spaceport currently being built in New Mexico.
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