Friday, January 7, 2011

Markets in Everything: Space Travel

Good news for rich people: commercial space travel is no longer the stuff of science fiction. Virgin Galactic, the commercial spaceship company backed by Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin Group, is now offering space travel on its brand of spaceships.

Branson himself plans to take the first Virgin Galactic trip with his mom and adult children in the spaceship that would depart from Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert.

The WhiteKnightTwo will be attached under a "lifting craft" jet, flown to roughly 50,000 feet and detached. Using a hybrid engine, it then will shoot to about 65 miles above the planet, "to a height where you can see 1,000 miles in every direction, and you will see the blue ring of the earth's atmosphere," said Peter Friedman of Unique Travel in Delray Beach.

At its peak height, an announcement will be made: "You are now free to float around the cabin." Passengers can spend four to seven minutes weightless. The craft then will slowly glide down to earth and land like a jet on the runway – perhaps two hours after takeoff, said Friedman.

Mostly affluent men from their 30s to 60s have been booking trips so far. The $200,000 price tag pays for three days of training, the stay at the spaceport and the trip.

Galactic plans to start with one spacecraft seating six passengers and two pilots. More than 100 people already have paid $200,000 in full to be among the first space trippers. As more craft and trips are added, prices should dip, said the agents, who must be individually trained to sell the space packages.

With the lack of vision coming from NASA over the future of space, ventures like Virgin Galatic may be what's required to push space travel forward.

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