Commercial Flights To Space and Back

Virgin Galactic vs Blue Origin

More people have signed up to go to space (with Virgin Galactic) than the number of people who’ve actually been to space. [700+have signed up; 558 have been to space]

Beth Moses, aerospace engineer and chief trainer for Virgin Galatic

Roundtrip to would set you back US$250,000/person on Virgin Galactic. Taking-off at dawn from SpacePort America in New Mexico, the newly-minted astronauts will be returning in just two to three hours. [Don’t worry. You weren’t the only one to have expected a longer trip of perhaps a day or two.]

While the ticket price is steep, it is however, I quote, “the company’s (Virgin Galactic) intent that the prices would come down in the long run, enabling space-travel for all.”

Two things came as a surprise:

  1. With Virgin Galactic, you won’t be taking a rocket up to space
  2. You won’t be landing in some field or ocean like you see the “professional astronauts
Left: Blue Origin’s vertical take-off, vertical landing space vehicles. © Blue Origin. Right: Virgin Mother Ship carrying Virgin Spaceship (smaller vehicle mounted in the center) © 2016 Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic;

Why it ain’t going to be on a rocket

While one might expect lifting-off in a rocket, Virgin Galactic plans to take people up to space in spacecrafts like those in the photo on the right. The larger Virgin Mother Ship, will bring the Virgin Spaceship mounted in the middle up to an altitude of ~50,000 ft for an air launch!

The detachable Virgin Spaceship is, the company claims, designed for maximum comfort so passengers will have to endure less harsh deceleration during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

And all about the landing in New Mexico

Unlike rocket capsules that end up landing in a field somewhere, or on a drone ship in some ocean, the Virgin Spaceship will land back at Spaceport America in New Mexico where the journey began.

Spaceport America: home to Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo; SpaceX’s Falcon 9R and host numerous other suborbital launches including those of UP Aerospace.

The Weightless Experience: Zero-G

The plan is, that when the Virgin Space ship is in space, pilots will tilt the aircraft so the windows will face the earth, enabling passengers to view Earth from the windows below — just like in the photo below.

Aboard Virgin Galactic, experiencing weightlessness, viewing Earth below

Blue Origin, set up by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, features ‘largest windows in space flight history,’ would perhaps making it easier to capture better photos and send back?

A third of the cabin are windows aboard the Blue Origin’s capsule. ©Blue Origin

Relatedly, The Blue Marble c1972

Earth, taken from space aboard Apollo 17

This photo, named the ‘Blue Marble,’ is apparently the most reproduced picture in history. It was taken in December 1972, by astronauts aboard Apollo 17, while on their way to the moon. I doubt, however, that the commercial space crafts would be taking passengers far enough to have a full view of the earth at this point.

So, when are the first passengers going up to space?

There is no definitive date for the inaugural commercial flight by either company. Blue Origin hasn’t even yet set prices, but is accepting expressions of interest online. However, the companies claim to be on schedule with testing and development, and one can keep tabs of progress and learn about their test flights, like these, on their sites -

Virgin Galactic flight test
Blue Origin’s flight test

Q: Can anybody sign up? Is there any screening process?

A: (Virgin Galactic, the World’s first commercial spaceline) Yes. Anyone can pay and sign up. Our intent is space travel for all. No out-right screening process.

Q: Where does Elon Musk’s SpaceX figure into all this?

A: Not sure. But they seem to be in a different ballgame, already in contract with NASA, completing cargo resupply missions (at least 20 trips under current contract) to the International Space Station.

Would-be Astronauts

These happy faces signed up to be astronauts with Virgin Galactic. Can you spot Branson in the midst of them all?