Back Page: Virgin Territory

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

When SpaceShipOne glided back to Earth on October 4, 2004, after reaching the edge of space for the second time in five days, it validated almost a decade’s worth of work by inventor Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif. For their efforts, Rutan and company were awarded the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million bounty designed to encourage private companies to build space-worthy passenger vehicles. Although the flight was deserving of the publicity it received, it may not prove as significant to the future of commercial space travel as a far less dramatic event that occurred the previous week.

On September 27, 2004, Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group conglomerate, announced a $21.5 million agreement with Scaled Composites to license its suborbital plane technology for a new venture, Virgin Galactic, which, Branson said, will begin carrying passengers as early as 2007. Branson also declared his intention to invest $100 million in the space travel company. With those statements, Branson made one giant leap for commercial space tourism.

Still, Virgin Galactic might be one of many competitors in the newborn industry. Several companies that lost out on the Ansari X Prize could have their craft ready to fly before Branson’s planes are cleared for liftoff by the Federal Aviation Administration. (Laws that would govern the industry are still being discussed by Congress.) “Maybe by 2006, some [of the other X Prize contestants] could do the space equivalent of barnstorming for a fee,” says Jeff Foust, editor and publisher of The Space Review, an online publication that monitors space-related news. “They won’t offer flights on as broad a scale as Virgin Galactic, but they may lay claim to being the first commercial suborbital space plane.”

Virgin Galactic, whose flights would cost an estimated $190,000, already is considering ways to distinguish itself in the marketplace, although its fleet of five space planes and two mother ships is still in the design phase. Alex Tai, a Virgin Atlantic pilot involved in Virgin Galactic, says that the company is planning creature comforts in the tradition of its sibling airline. “The five-seat model will be a lot larger [than SpaceShipOne, which seats three], and [its interior] will be roomier,” he says. “With Virgin’s reputation for luxurious amenities, we would be looking to improve the in-flight experience in all areas.”

When we last wrote about commercial space travel in the September 2001 issue of Robb Report, in a feature titled “Space Invaders,” Dennis Tito had recently completed his $20 million, eight-day trip to the International Space Station (ISS). In September 2004, just before the two historic SpaceShipOne flights took place, Space Adventures, the Arlington, Va., company that arranged transportation to the ISS for Tito and Mark Shuttleworth, formed the Spaceflight Club, which now has 100 members and counting. Members pay annual dues of $980, and the funds are credited against the price of a future flight offered through Space Adventures. Alberto Vasquez, a 48-year-old business owner from Dallas, is the kind of person for whom the club was designed. Four years ago he journeyed to Star City, Russia, where he flew to the edge of space in a MiG-25, experienced weightlessness in a zero-gravity flight—aboard an aircraft similar to NASA’s “vomit comet”—and rode in a centrifuge that simulates the g forces astronauts feel during a launch. These adventures only whetted Vasquez’s appetite for more. “My dream is to take a suborbital flight, and I joined the club to allow me to make progress to get to that stage,” he says.

In the meantime, Vasquez and his fellow members attend VIP events that Space Adventures arranges. One such event was a party at Tito’s house in Los Angeles, where Vasquez met astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, and overheard film director James Cameron chatting with Space Adventures CEO Eric Anderson about a space-related project. “The club lets you network with people who know about space,” Vasquez says. “You become savvy about suborbital flight. It’s a great opportunity.”

The club also gave members the opportunity to attend what may have been the first party where guests actually wanted to see the host’s vacation photos.

Photo by UWE@FISCHER
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