The first shots have been made in the privatization of space tourism and they have been fired by the dynamic duo of Burt Rutan and Richard Branson.
Burt Rutan is recently well known for being the designer of the SpaceShipOne spacecraft that successfully captured the Ansari X-Prize on October 4, 2004. The Ansari X-Prize consisted of designing and building a privately funded single craft capable of carrying the mass of 3 adults into space and repeating the task within a two-week period.
Richard Branson is well known worldwide as a flamboyant risk-taking billionaire, master of trends businessman and founder of Virgin Atlantic. He has attempted to fly a balloon around the world, nearly been killed during several of his stunts and now has his own television show, The Rebel Billionaire. A businessman always pushing the envelope, Branson is a down to earth approachable guy with visions of the future.
Now Branson has thrown his hat into the space tourism ring purchasing a fleet of SpaceShipTwo craft with intentions of forming Virgin Galactic. SpaceShipTwo has yet to be designed and built, but here are a few things mentioned in a BBC article on what it could possibly consist of.
... Each will be capable of flying at least five and more likely around eight people at one time.
... Rutan and Branson plan a ship of luxury, with service and amenities that at least match Virgin Atlantic's upper-class travel service. And that, as any airline flier knows, starts with legroom.
... Seats will fully recline so that even elderly passengers - Rutan and Branson both plan to fly their elderly fathers - will be able to handle the expected force of six times Earth's gravity upon descent.
"Instead of shoulder harnesses and tight seatbelts we want this roller coaster-type bar that you fold out of the way and you can float around," Rutan said.
"We think that's important. If you want the view, we have handles there so you can float over and put your nose right against your own window."
"Does that mean that some guy and his girl might want to take the whole ship? OK!"
Don't get your hopes up too high on that last statement though. According to the article the ships will go higher than SpaceShipOne, but the resultant weightless time is still only around 30 seconds. So unless you're a 15 year-old-boy, you're going to have a hard time getting out of your seat, doing the deed and being seated and ready for reentry.
Wired has a six page article on Branson and Virgin Galactic. In it they go over some of the terms of the deal.
The upshot is Virgin Galactic, the world's first off-the-planet private airline. Under a deal still being negotiated with SpaceShipOne's owners - Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen and legendary Mojave airplane designer Burt Rutan - Virgin will pay up to $21.5 million for an exclusive license to SpaceShipOne's core design and technologies. Another $50 million will go to Rutan's company Scaled Composites to build five tricked-out passenger spaceships. An equal amount will be invested in operations, including a posh Virgin Earth Base somewhere in the California desert. Total outlay: $121.5 million. Business plan: 50 passengers a month, paying $200,000 each. Core product: a two-hour flight to an apex beyond Earth's atmosphere, wrapped in a three-day astronaut experience. Lift off: T-minus three years.
Quite a pricey endeavor, but most new technologies start off as expensive. The real question to all of this is safety of course. Just as with the first airplanes the safety issue is what the skeptics will center on. Granted the propulsion is thousands of times greater, but I'm a firm believer in privatization making things more efficient. It happened with the airplane. The airplane started with an exposed pilot in a fabric covered wood frame and progressed to more efficient and powerful engines that could lift a closed and pressurized cabin with temperature controls, food and the ability to walk around. That is the point that airplanes became a viable business venture.
While Virgin Galactic is a baby step it could lead to longer term weightlessness, quicker "across the globe" travel and amazing sight-seeing and increased scientific experimentation by private companies.
The other thing the Wired article points out is that the total price tag is only half the cost of a single Airbus A340-600 of which Virgin ordered 26 of just last year. So something that seems like a risky venture when put into perspective is not so risky. The worldwide press and attention Virgin will receive from this, in addition to the possibility of it actually generating money in a business plan would seem to far outweigh the $121.5 million price tag.
If this interests you at all you really need to go read the six page Wired article. It goes pretty in depth into what this could mean for the industry, Virgin, Branson, Rutan and geeks around the world.