The next destination for people who have exhausted earth's four corners is space (click here to read more). Virgin Galactic, the first private company to successfully send a human into space, is leading the field because it has re-written the rules of spaceship design. Designer Burt Rutan's craft has three main features that make it unique.
Launch from the air: The spaceship will hitch a ride on a specially designed carrier aircraft – dubbed "the mother ship" – to an altitude of 50,000 feet. At 50,000 feet the spaceship will be released from the mother ship and ignite its hybrid rocket that will blast it over 360,000 feet and into space. The climb will take roughly 90 seconds, as the ship reaches just over three times the speed of sound. Rocketing from the air is far safer then rocket launching from the ground. "What happens is you outpace sound," explains David Clark, head of Virgin Galactic's ticket sales, "and while this is happening the sky out the window is going from blue, to dark blue, to indigo, to the absolute black of space."
The hybrid rocket engine: The hybrid rocket engine ignited at 50,000 feet is a controllable, extinguishable rocket, which again increases safety. If the rocket fails to ignite or experiences problems, the spaceship glides back down to earth.
The "feathered" wing technique: As the ship begins its re-entry, its wings fold up. This is called the "feathering technique" and is a Rutan innovation. As Clark explains, "The best analogy is a shuttlecock in badminton. If you picture a shuttlecock, it always falls back through the air with the heavy side down and it slows itself down. It always falls slower than gravity would have it fall normally. That's exactly what our spaceship does. It assumes the position of a shuttlecock and it falls back through the earth's atmosphere."
With these feathered wings, the ship meets the resistance of the upper atmosphere, acting as brakes and safely positioning the plane by decelerating the craft so that, when it reaches approximately 60,000 feet, the ship's wings can reconfigure back to a normal fixed wing position and then glide un-powered back to the same place from where it took off.
Training for the unknown
Once you've bought your ticket, all you need to do is physically prepare yourself for space. All passengers will be given three days of training before they fly, including Centrifuge training to simulate the G-forces they'll experience on take off and re-entry and weightlessness training. The weightlessness training will take place on special "parabolic flights", which recreate the sensation of weightlessness for short spells of time. The planes used for this particular exercise have earned the unfortunate nickname "vomit comets".
Virgin Galactic are confident that up to 85% of booked clients will be fit when their flights are finally scheduled, and have even taken bookings from people in their eighties. "Certain people will react differently," says Clark, "and that's why we'll be monitoring our potential astronauts very closely when they train for G-Forces on the centrifuge. Heart conditions are an issue and it's safe to say people who react badly to the G-force training will not be our first passengers."
Click here to read more about Virgin Galactic and its innovative spaceship.