Space travel: Are we nearly there yet?

Fifty years ago, President Eisenhower created Nasa. Since then, we've sent men to the moon and robots to Mars – but the dream of regular tourist flights into space has still not been realised

Journey into space, anyone? The bravest venture yet from Sir Richard Branson promises to take tourists beyond the earth's atmosphere. The price of weightlessness and a new view of the planet: £100,000. How many people have stumped up – and who's on the list?



WW: We're at $36m as we speak today and that's just over 250 people who have actually stumped up. They're a very diverse group. They are people like Philippe Starck the designer and Victoria Principal, the actress from Dallas days who's now a successful entrepreneur in the US. Professor Stephen Hawking is certainly doing his damnedest to prove to us that we can carry him.



Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn on the company's announcement:



Almost all have two characteristics in common: one, they have a scientific interest and bent; the other, that they all saw the moon landing in 1969, and they were told by their parents, as they watched, that one day they would go into space, and it stuck with them. The only alternative at the moment costs $20m, involves seven months' training and learning to speak Russian, and having to be a qualified scientist.

SC: If space travel is so promising, then why, in almost five decades of men in space, have fewer than 500 people actually made the journey, and the Americans have wound down Nasa from the days where it seemed to despatch a lunar mission every 10 minutes?

WW: Access to space has always been a government-denominated investment, and it hasn't kept pace with the change in human circumstances. Because space exploration has been based on ground-based rocketry, with its military origins, it is intrinsically unsafe for human beings to be launched, therefore only the bravest of the brave have been doing it, and in circumstances of a massive government investment – to the extent that every single shuttle launch costs $700m.

We're trying to develop a new type of space launch system here. Imagine you've done your three days' training, you've learnt how to use your safety equipment in the cabin, you've had some experience learning about weightlessness and g-forces: you get on board – hopefully on a sunny New Mexico morning – and you climb into a rocket that is underslung under the entirely carbon-composite mother ship, in your entirely carbon-composite spaceship. You're lifted to 50,000ft. You're then dropped, a rocket fires, and within six seconds you're doing the speed of sound, within about 20 seconds you're at nearly 3,000mph, and you climb up into space and you get up to about 70 miles above the earth.

SC: You promise "The most incredible experience of your life".

WW: Yes. You will see the curvature of Earth, you will see the blue planet, you will see the thinness of the atmosphere, you will see the blackness of space. You will also experience weightlessness – something that all the people that we surveyed really wanted to experience more than anything else. But equal to that is seeing planet Earth and that thin atmosphere of ours. You'll get a look at all of that, you'll get the chance to be in space in the true sense of the word, and then you'll come back again.

Coming back is an experience in itself. You'll get quite a lot of g-forces through your body on the way down. But you won't feel that too badly, because you'll be lying flat. And you'll drop straight into the atmosphere – we're not trying to fly you back in like an aircraft or a space plane would try to do.

Once you're at 50,000ft, we turn the spaceship back into a glider and you simply glide down to the airport. It's about a two-and-a-half-hour experience.



SC: I understand that people will get only six minutes of weightlessness. I reckon that works out at about £300 a second. Can't it last a bit longer than that?



WW: The answer is it could last longer, but it would be more expensive. We reckon this is exactly the right amount of time for a flight. If you went a lot higher, you would increase the g-forces for coming down. So you'd be decreasing the safety aspects.



SC: New technology involves risk, space travel most certainly does. How can you manage the dangers?



WW: We're trying to take the riskiest things out of the equation. Ground-based rocketry involves firing a massive explosion under somebody to leave the planet – we've eliminated that. So you're launching in a very safe environment. We've hopefully eliminated some of the risks of re-entry, which is another of the most dangerous aspects.

We believe that this will be thousands of times safer than any previous human flights into space.



SC: Are we nearly there yet?



WW: Well, we're nearly there in the sense that Monday 28 July will mark the unveiling of the mother ship and the beginning of the test flying programme; named after Richard Branson's mother, it's going to be called Eve.

The spaceship is very nearly complete and will be underslung under the mother ship once it's done its first test flying programme in 2009. And when we and the Federal Aviation Administration are ready we will open it for commercial flight.



SC: Would it be, for example, within 40 years of the first moon landing in July 1969 – so about a year from now?



WW: I'd love to think that we could at least coincide the first test flight into space with that. I don't know yet if that will be possible. We've been very straightforward with our customers, we never make a promise we can't keep. But certainly within a few years we'll be test- flying into space with the world's first private, non-government subsidised space launch system.



SC: You talk about the thinness of the atmosphere, and in your publicity material you say it looks worryingly fragile. Many people would agree with that, including the objectors who would sum up Virgin Galactic in two words: "environmental disaster".



WW: That's rubbish. The fact is that, over 10 years, this entire programme, if we only achieved it for space tourism, would have less environmental impact than a single shuttle launch. More importantly, everything that we're going to do in space in the future is crucial to mankind's survival. We have to find better and more environmentally friendly ways to get there. And this system is the beginnings of a system that could allow people to go around the planet without using the atmosphere at all.



SC: So rather than just flying from Spaceport New Mexico to Spaceport New Mexico, you will be able to fly, maybe, people from London to Sydney?



WW: This system is theoretically capable of being expanded to take people around the planet, outside the atmosphere. But we will not be given the funds to invest in that unless we can prove that the first phase works. The space tourists we take up in the beginning are going to be part of that process of proving that we can do something safely and efficiently, in a way that's never been done before.



SC: Are we going to see, any time in your lifetime, man returning to the moon, and will Virgin Galactic be helping?



WW: I think we are very likely to see man returning to the moon. I think it's a shame in some ways because I can't quite understand why we are going to rebuild what we built so well in the 1960s. If you want the dreamer in Will Whitehorn answering the question, if I was going to run a space programme now, I would give people who wanted to volunteer for it the opportunity to go to Mars direct from this planet, and not come back. They would stay there. And they would take with them the equipment for their survival, for long enough till the next mission could reach them, and possibly think about bringing them back.



You can listen, free, to the full version of this interview clicking the audio-player above.

Race for space
Timeline

* 29 July 1958: President Eisenhower signs the National Aeronautics and Space Act, establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa).

* 11 October 1958: First Nasa launch from Cape Canaveral: Pioneer 1.

* 12 April 1961: Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human to go into space, in the Vostok I spacecraft. Flight lasts 108 minutes.

* 5 May 1961: Alan Shepard becomes the first American in space aboard Freedom 7.

* 20 February 1962: John Glenn becomes the first American to orbit the earth, in the Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft.

* 20 July 1969: First moon landing. Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin become the first and second humans on the moon, arriving aboard Apollo 11.

* 28 January 1986: Space Shuttle Challenger blows up just after take-off. All crew members die.

* 20 February 1986: Russia launches the core module for the Mir Space Station.

* 24 April 1990: Hubble telescope launched from Space Shuttle Columbia.

* 20 November 1998: First part of the International Space Station – the Russian-built Zarya module – is launched.

* 28 April 2001: The first space tourist, American Dennis Tito, spends eight days on the International Space Station. He pays £14m for the privilege.

* 1 February 2003: The crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia perish when it breaks up on re-entry.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention