Space tourism has finally arrived in India, at a cost of Rs80 lakh per flight. Virgin Galactic (VG), promoted by British aviation baron Richard Branson, has offered sub-orbital space flights from 2009-end.
The company has launched its high-end space tours in India on Tuesday 16 October, appointing an ''accredited space agent'' in New Delhi. VG''s exclusive accredited space agent, Deluxe Travels Europe Ltd, has tied up with India''s GD Goenka Tourism Corporation to form a new company, Spazio Travels.
Already in the queue
Already four Indians - two US-based and one each in UK and India - are among the 200 space tourists who have already bought the $200,000 ticket for four to six minutes of weightlessness and a panoramic view of mother Earth while the spaceship remains above the notional Karman line, at an altitude over 100km, which is accepted to be the beginning of space.
The flights will take off from VG''s ''Spaceport America'', the world''s first commercial spaceport, located on 70 sq-km of state-owned desert near Upham, an uninhabited area in Sierra County, New Mexico.
The closest settlements are Las Cruces, 72 km to the south, and Truth or Consequences, 48 km to the west. The site is near the perimeter of the White Sands Missile Range.
First class, all window seats
The spacecraft, now called by its development name SpaceShipTwo, is under completion and will be named Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Enterprise, in honour of the fictional Starship Enterprise from the cult television serial Startrek. It will carry six passengers and two pilots.
SpaceShipTwo will reach a speed of roughly 4,000 kmph (2,500 mph), using a single hybrid rocket motor. Virgin Galactic plans to operate a fleet of five of these craft in passenger-carrying private spaceflight services, starting in late 2009.
The innovative spaceship uses a feathered re-entry system, feasible due to its very low speed of re-entry. In contrast, space shuttles and other orbital spacecraft re-enter Earth''s atmosphere at orbital speeds of around 25,000 kmph (16,000 mph), requiring the use of advanced heat shields.
VSS Enterprise''s cabin will have about the same diameter as a Gulfstream V business jet - roughly 6 feet high by 7 feet wide (1.8 metres high and 2.1 metres wide). Designer Bert Rutan is working towards a maximum altitude of between 135 and 140 km (84 to 87 miles).
The design of the craft was completed in late 2005. A vehicle simulator has been built and actual construction of the test vehicle started in March 2006.
According to VG, a mothership aircraft, ''White KnightTwo'' will take the spaceship aloft to a height of 16 km (52,500 ft) in about 45 minutes. Then, the mothership will release the spaceship and move away. The spaceship will glide for a while before its rocket motors fire and propel it to a height of 100 km in just 90 seconds, moving at three times the speed of sound.
The space experience
At that point, the spaceship''s rocket will stop firing, and "the astronauts will experience near zero gravity, no noise or vibrations and get a marvellous 1,000-mile view of space, including Earth".
The spaceship will follow a normal trajectory and keep going up for a while because of the momentum generated by its rocket motor before it was switched off, reach an approximate maximum height of 110 km, and then slowly fall back to the 100-km level. This means its stay in space will be four to six minutes.
The spaceship will then return to earth. Its wings will be turned up to allow a soft approach, like a badminton shuttlecock, till it reaches the lower atmosphere, when it will get into a glide and return to the spaceport.
SpaceShipTwo is based on technology developed for SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first private vehicle that could achieve sub-orbital flight twice in the space of two weeks.
Part of the Scaled Composites Tier One programme funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, it has already successfully undertaken three flights to that level. The technology for SpaceShipTwo is licensed from Paul Allen''s Mojave Aerospace Ventures.
The first new carrier aircraft, whose development name is White Knight Two, will be called Eve, after Richard Branson''s mother. It will be roughly three times the size of the first generation mothership, called White Knight.
A sketch of SpaceShipTwo has appeared in Popular Mechanics. Designer Burt Rutan says all seats will have large porthole windows for passengers'' viewing pleasure. All seats will recline back during landing, to help decrease the discomfort of G-forces. Rutan says the craft will be able to land safely even if "catastrophic damage" occurs during the flight.
However, things might be delayed owing to design changes, including a low wing, revealed on September 2007. SpaceShipOne had a mid-wing. Earlier, in July 2007, a huge explosion at the Mojave airport during a fuel flow test killed three employees, with a further three seriously injured.
But the developers are confident that they can unveil the vehicle to the public in January 2008, just before flight testing starts. Following a series of 50 to 100 test flights, the first paying customers are expected to fly aboard the craft in late 2009.
In August 2005, Virgin Galactic said that if the suborbital service with SpaceShipTwo is successful, the follow-up SpaceShipThree will be an orbital craft. On 28 September 2006, Sir Richard Branson unveiled a mock-up of SpaceShipTwo at the NextFest exposition, held in the Javits Convention Centre in New York.
Prices will come down
More than 65,000 intending space tourists applied for the first batch of 100 tickets. While the initial price is $200,000 (Rs80 lakh), for the passengers going in the first year but after the first 100, it will be around $100,000 (Rs40 lakh). After the first year, promoters hope they can reduce the ticket price to around $20,000 (Rs8 lakh).
The ticket price includes a three-day stay at the spaceport, where the space tourists will be thoroughly medically examined. They are expected to be ''healthy'' and not suffer from any major medical problem, so that they will be able to handle the sudden gravity surges during take off and landing.
SpaceShipTwo will initially take off from the Mojave Spaceport in California. The $200 million Spaceport America, partly funded by the New Mexico state government, will become the permanent launch site in 2009. VG has also shown interest in building spaceports in other countries, including Sweden, Saudi Arabia and the UK. But this depends on the success of the initial spaceports in Mojave and New Mexico.
The company expects to begin with one flight a week and then go up to twice daily by the end of second year, depending on the demand. So far, it has sold around 200 tickets. The Rs80 lakh figure is also due to a weak dollar.
NY to Sydney in three hours?
In addition, VG is also examining possibility of hypersonic point-to-point flights. Since it takes about 45 minutes to orbit the earth, a New York to Sydney flight at orbit height would take about 20 minutes, plus the time taken to reach orbit, re-enter and land.
If indeed hypersonic flight is possible, it will enable people to fly from New York to Sydney in less than two-and-a-half hours. It will be a spin-off that will make the world a very small place indeed.