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Science: 

Virgin Galactic gets ready for space mission – or does it?

Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic’s latest test flight went up without a hitch

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is (very nearly) open for business, having finally signed all the forms and received a licence to take very rich passengers to space from its wobbly-roofed New Mexico spaceport. There’s even a booking page – although the price makes Virgin First Class (the one with the actual bar in it) look like Ryanair. It’s $250,000 a flight – and you land where you took off.

 It’s $250,000 a flight – and you land where you took off 
Watch out for an angel-faced former child idol being bagged and tagged as you take off – among the passengers are Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher, Stephen Hawking (who believes humankind will be exterminated unless we learn the skills to move to other planets), Brangelina (because they can), and, er, not-really-on-speaking terms exes Russell Brand and Katy Perry, who hopefully won’t get seats next to each other.

For their $250,000, the Virgin Galactic crew will enjoy a two-and-a-half hour flight – and six minutes of weightlessness. But are they really going to space? Not according to the official definition, the Karman line, which places the boundary between the boring stuff and space at 62 miles up. Virgin Galactic is blasting up a mere 50, using a NASA definition from the Sixties (if you remember, the decade when NASA did stuff like put men on the moon) – but that’s not enough for the venomous (and possibly jealous ) commenters of Slashdot

Before anyone goes getting jealous, it’s also worth noting that there have been several accidents in tests – including an explosion which killed three people.

virgin galactic

What better product placement than launching your brand into space?

Sir Richard and his investment partners are plunging $250m into the great journey into what may or may not officially be termed space. But even by 2009, they had already recouped $31m in pledges – Branson, never one to miss out on publicity, hired Philippe Starck to do early designs for his “spaceport”. Starck – creator of that War of the Worlds lemon squeezer which appears in all of Earth’s posh shops – obligingly drew a spaceport which A) looks so cool you immediately want to sell all your possessions and fly to space and B) looks nothing at all like the real one.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic project has been bedevilled by delays – it was originally supposed to launch in 2009 – and wannabe space cadets have now waited so long that there is a rival space airline in the offing, headed by none other than Elon Musk, the space-crazed founder of PayPal. Musk’s Space X has a solid history, having delivered cargo to the space station – but passengers may end up travelling further than they want to, as Musk has publicly stated that one day he aims to build a human colony on Mars. 

Perhaps the biggest question wannabe spacemen should ask is, “Do I want to be involved in a space mission headed by a balloon enthusiast who is most famous for crashing into the sea?”

If it all goes wrong, and you end up in the sea, rather than, for instance, being burned to death, freezing solid in space, plunging 50 miles to Earth, or simply being mauled by Justin Bieber, equip yourself with Sir Richard’s own preferred “panic button” – the Breitling Emergency watch, which has an air-sea emergeny broadcast button built in. The $17,000 price tag is peanuts next to the price of your seat.

What actually happens on a Virgin Galactic flight/space mission/whatever is that the plane flies up really high, then a capsule detaches, flies up even higher for six weightless minutes, then returns. You do not at any point orbit the Earth, or get to take those cool videos the Space Station guys do. When Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev heard that NASA had pulled off a similar mission in the Sixties, he dismissed it as a mere “flea hop”.

In the Sixties, spy planes didn’t rely on exotic alloys and hi-tech electronics to evade detection – they often just flew really, really high, some close to the levels that Branson’s high-paying passenagers will cruise at before looping up towards space. Extra adrenalin was provided by the fact that capture meant falling into the hands of the KGB – so pilots often wore civilian clothes, and were thoughtfully provided with a pistol and one bullet were the engine to malfunction.

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