Jeff Bezos, of Amazon.com fame, is setting up a rocket HQ in Texas. Las Vegas hotel tycoon Robert Bigelow is planning to build an inflatable space station. But furthest along the rocket trail - unsurprisingly, given his ardour for boats, trains, planes and balloons - is Richard Branson. Virgin Galactic is all set to launch its first spaceship in spring 2008; among the 30,000 wannabe astronauts who have already signed up, or handed over $200,000 (£114,000) for the inaugural flight, are Paris Hilton, Dallas's Victoria Principal, ad man Trevor Beattie, and Morgan Freeman, who was quoted recently as saying he couldn't wait to "get up there in Branson's rocket".
"It's time we rediscovered the thrill of space," says Will Whitehorn, an ex-RAF man who's heading up Virgin's interstellar arm. " The key thing is that with the new technology that's available," he says, "we can make the dream a safe, affordable reality for thousands of people."
Virgin Galactic's "new technology" is SpaceShipOne, a spacecraft made of Kevlar and other "composite fibres", designed and built by a "genius aerodynamicist" named Bert Rutan; this craft has already won the Ansari X Prize, a race for non-government-funded teams to take a spaceship at least 100km above the earth and - more importantly - bring it back again, and then do it all again within a fortnight (the money for the prize was donated by Paul Allen, formerly Bill Gates's partner in Microsoft and, consequently, one of the richest people in the world).
SpaceShipOne is powered by a mixture of laughing gas and rubber, which may sound very Wallace and Gromit, but, says Whitehorn, "means it's much cheaper and less combustible than rocket fuel". The entire project has so far cost $26m (£15m), compared to the $250m (£142m) to $300m (£170m) for one Shuttle flight.
So what can Morgan, Paris et al, expect from the Virgin Galactic experience? First of all, says Whitehorn, they'll be taken to Virgin's "space resort " in the Mojave Desert for three to six days of tough medical tests, G-tolerance training, and flight simulations. The eight-seater SpaceShipOne will be carried by a 737-sized mothership up to a Concorde height of 55,000ft; there it will be released and, within a minute of being dropped, it will reach 3,000mph (which should impress even Jeremy Clarkson) with "ergonomically shifting" seats minimising the G-force. Weightlessness will ensue once they have climbed to 100 miles above the Earth, at which point each passenger will float to his or her personal panoramic window for a cosmic view, tethered all the while by a bungee cord to prevent free-floating anarchy. The motors are then turned off, and the wings are tucked in so it can glide back to Earth. The whole flight will take two and a half hours, and each passenger will be given a DVD of the trip, a pair of astronauts' wings, and a more philosophical view of our place in the universe, for their trouble.
Inevitably for such an undertaking, Whitehorn finds himself juggling questions both transcendental and mundane. Yes, he says, this could well be the first step to colonising space and developing future societies, and yes, it's hard to discuss this stuff without sounding messianic. Meanwhile, there's the question of whether the flights should have hostesses doing their "chicken or beef" thing as you hit Mach 3. "I'm against it," he says. "I think the experience should be free of distractions and small talk."
Eventually, says Whitehorn, Virgin hopes to get its price down to around $75,000 (£42,000) a ticket: "I think we'll get tens of thousands of customers at that price." In the meantime, people are lining up to be the first honeymoon couple and the first family in space. And while the first wave of astronauts will need a strong stomach, a non-dodgy heart and deep pockets, they won't need a passport. "Technically, we're leaving from and arriving at the same hub," grins Whitehorn. "It's just that we're boldly going further and higher than any domestic passenger has gone before."
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