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How Virgin Galactic Works


Virgin Galactic Passengers
Sir Richard Branson gives a thumbs-up during the unveiling of a scale model of SpaceShipTwo in 2006.
Sir Richard Branson gives a thumbs-up during the unveiling of a scale model of SpaceShipTwo in 2006.
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

Virgin Galactic started booking passengers in 2005. Anyone who can pay the fee and pass a physical can go on a flight. Prospective passengers can book their flights directly through the Virgin Galactic Web site or through authorized ticket agencies across the globe. The costs are as follows:

  • Founders: The first 100 passengers to fly paid $200,000. This section has already filled.
  • Pioneers: Passengers who will fly in the first year of flight operations will pay $100,000 to $175,000. A $20,000 deposit is required.
  • Voyagers: Later flights will probably be less expensive, but the price hasn't been determined yet.

Obviously, these flights cost significantly less than the $20 million that space tourists Dennis Tito (2001) and Mark Shuttleworth (2002) paid to fly aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station.

Prospective passengers have to go through three days of training and pass a physical exam before their flight. As of January 2008, about 80 people had started training, which includes spinning in a centrifuge at 3 to 4 Gs. Further training will involve zero-gravity flights aboard WK2 to get acquainted with the weightlessness experience. When full operations start up, this training will take place at Spaceport America.

Virgin Galactic has emphasized safety in the designs of WK2 and SS2. For example, the hybrid rocket engine doesn't require storage of explosive propellants. The air launch of SS2 doesn't expose passengers to the risks associated with rocket launches -- if the rocket fails to ignite, SS2 can glide back for a safe landing. Feathering is a safer way to re-enter the atmosphere without incurring high heat loads like the space shuttle does. (But SS2 doesn't reach the velocity that the space shuttle does).

Virgin Galactic is the first company out of the gate, but others are vying to get into the burgeoning space tourism industry.

  • Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos has invested in Blue Origin, which is testing its new Shepard reusable launch vehicle in the hopes of launching suborbital spaceflights.
  • PayPal founder Elon Musk launched Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) in 2002 to develop new rockets for commercial spaceflights -- he envisions orbital space tourist flights.
  • Hotel magnate Robert Bigelow has founded Bigelow Aerospace to build a space hotel.
  • The European aerospace firm EADS had founded Astrium to develop space planes and space tourism.

To learn more about Virgin Galactic and space tourism, take a look at the links on the next page.


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