Space Tourism Closer to Reality

Billionaire Richard Branson and aerospace designer Burt Rutan have unveiled their model for the world's first tourist spaceship, which they plan to put on trial later this year. Branson's Virgin Galactic company aims to have the craft, SpaceShipTwo, pressed into full service for fare-paying passengers as soon as next year, for $200,000 a ticket. NEWSWEEK asked former NASA engineer and "Rocket Boys" author Homer Hickam about the final frontier for tourism--and whether those brave first passengers will likely need the return portion of their tickets. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How big a deal is SpaceShipTwo?
Homer Hickam: We'll see. It could be the DC-3 of space or it might be the DC-1. [The less-than-successful DC-1 paved the way for the DC-3, which revolutionized air travel.] A hop into the lower regions of space isn't like going into earth orbit for an extended time. It should be an exciting ride with a brief, though marvelous view, but I personally would want a little more time to contemplate our planet and the stars. Still, it may be the only game in town for private space travelers since it looks like the Russians are going to get out of the space-tourist business in favor of flying NASA astronauts, who will soon lack the ability to go on an American ship. [The space-shuttle program is set to end in 2010.]

What will it do?
It will accomplish about what the first Mercury-Redstone flights did in the 1950s and 1960s, an up and down parabolic flight about 62 miles high with some minutes of weightlessness.

How safe is this thing?
It should be very safe. There really isn't much in the way of unproven technology about it with the exception of the composite materials used for its construction. No one knows how these materials will hold up over many flights, but computer models look good.

Would you go on it, given the chance?
I might, except I think my publisher would be pretty unhappy. I'm under contract to write four more novels over the next five years so I don't think they'd like for me to leave the planet.

How does it work?
Like the old Air Force X-15 of the 1960s, SpaceShipTwo will be carried aloft attached by another aircraft, known as WhiteKnight Two, then released. Its single-engine rocket ignites, and up it goes. After the rocket burns out, it keeps coasting until a special wing deploys, and down it comes waffling in the air like a badminton shuttlecock. That design is pretty neat.

Is it a sensible concept?
Burt Rutan and his folks thought out of the box, especially with the design of the wing. They took a minimalist approach, and it works.

What will travelers see and feel?
One good thing about SpaceShipTwo is it will only have a single trajectory, and weightlessness will be brief. That means space sickness won't have time to set in. Upset stomachs in zero-gravity are the bane of astronauts. Given the short time of the flight, the decision every passenger is going to have to make is whether to enjoy flying around or looking out the window. The view should be marvelous as long as there aren't too many clouds. Me? I would look out the window. I can get weightless by going scuba diving.

Virgin Galactic hopes to send up its first passengers next year. Is that realistic?
Probably not. Everything that has to do with spaceflight takes longer than predicted. It's just the nature of the beast. But, on the other hand, this is private enterprise rather than the government doing it. I could be pleasantly surprised.

How much research, testing and trials is required for this kind of thing?
A lot if you're smart, but the day finally comes when you have to go out and fly. Burt Rutan knows the only way to really learn is to light that candle--and he'll do it, too.

So who is Burt Rutan? Should I trust him?
Burt Rutan is the rock star of space. Yes, you can absolutely trust him. He still knows how to use a slide rule, for one thing.

The space shuttle was developed by NASA's finest, but they still lost two of them. Does the private sector really have the know-how and the resources for a venture like this?
The private sector, run by innovative entrepreneurs, definitely has the know-how for a ballistic lob like this, given enough financing. I should point out, however, that carrying passengers to Earth orbit--as the shuttle does--is many magnitudes harder than what SpaceShipTwo is attempting. I look forward to the day when private enterprise takes on the orbital challenge. That's when I think big money is going to be made in terms of space tourism.