Dream is over for Virgin Galactic space tourist

Oct 04, 2011 By ALICIA CHANG , AP Science Writer
This file photo taken Oct. 4, 2004, shows, from left, Sir Richard Branson, Burt Rutan and Paul Allen as they , watch SpaceShipOne glide back to earth during the Ansari X Prize competition in Mojave, Calif. The flight tests in 2004 were hailed by space enthusiasts as a stepping stone toward opening the final frontier to civilians. (AP Photo/Laura Rauch, File)

Venture capitalist Alan Walton has trekked to the North Pole, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and skydived over Mount Everest. A hop into space to enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness would have been the ultimate adventure.

After waiting seven years to fly aboard Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic spaceline, Walton gave up on the dream and asked for a $200,000 ticket refund on his 75th birthday this past spring.

Walton, who was among the first 100 customers to sign up, is not as spry as he used to be, and he's concerned about the project delays.

"This was a decision I wish I didn't have to make," he said recently. But "it was time."

Promises of space travel for the masses reached a euphoric pitch in 2004 when the experimental SpaceShipOne air-launched over the and became the first privately financed, manned spacecraft to dash into space. It won the $10 million Ansari X Prize on Oct. 4, 2004, for accomplishing the feat twice in two weeks.

The flights were hailed by space enthusiasts as a leap toward opening the final frontier to civilians.

Virgin Galactic, which licensed the SpaceShipOne technology, began taking reservations before a commercial version was even built. Branson predicted back then that the maiden passenger flight would take off in 2007.

Other private rocketeers hunkered down in their hangars and sketched out designs to compete with Virgin Galactic. Soon a cottage industry rose. While there's been progress made - most are in the testing stage - there's still no launch date.

"It's tough," said Erika Wagner of the , which sponsored the 2004 contest. "We've seen slower progress than a lot of people would have liked."

so far has been restricted to governments and a handful of wealthy thrill-seekers who have plunked down millions of dollars to hitch rides aboard Russian rockets to the International Space Station, which circles the Earth 250 miles high.

Instead of flying all the way to orbit, current space tourism efforts are focused on suborbital trips using vehicles designed to rocket up to the edge of space then immediately descend rather than circle the Earth. Virgin Galactic promises flights to altitudes of at least 62 miles with a few minutes of . Cost per head ranges from $100,000 to $200,000 - far cheaper than the trips to orbit but still pricey.

Besides Virgin Galactic, other players include XCOR Aerospace headed by rocketeer Jeff Greason; Armadillo Aerospace founded by computer game programmer John Carmack; and Blue Origin headed by Amazon.com chief executive Jeff Bezos.

The companies are privately held and do not answer to shareholders. As a result, details about progress are hard to come by. Scaled Composites, which designed SpaceShipOne and is building a passenger version for Virgin Galactic, is publicity-shy, but posts results of test flights on its website.

Blue Origin is the most tight-lipped. The company didn't disclose a recent accident until a week after it happened. Even now, details about what failed during the test flight are sketchy.

Except for Blue Origin, the space tourism players are separate from those vying to build space taxis to the under a NASA contract.

John Gedmark, executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a trade group that represents suborbital and orbital space companies, is pleased with the testing despite the longer-than-expected time frame to get off the ground.

"Everything in aerospace always takes longer that you originally think," he said.

Scaled Composites, considered by many in the industry as the front-runner, has been conducting glide tests in the Mojave Desert since last year. The project suffered a setback in 2007 after a deadly explosion during testing to develop the propellant flow system for the hybrid rocket motor.

Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides said he expected powered test flights to begin sometime next year. Commercial service will start up after the company gets a license from the Federal Aviation Administration, he said.

About 450 ticket-holders are in line to fly with Virgin Galactic. A small number of people - fewer than 10 - dropped out due to medical and other reasons, Whitesides said.

"Folks are tremendously loyal and excited," he said. "They want us to do it safely. They want us to take our time and make sure we got it right."

Even if space tourism takes off, it's unclear whether there's a strong market for joy rides to view the curvature of the Earth, said space policy expert John Logsdon of George Washington University.

"In the current economic climate, how many people have that level of discretionary money?" he said.

Space Tourism Society founder John Spencer said the industry has matured in recent years with some branching out beyond passenger flights and inking deals with universities and NASA to take scientists and experiments to space.

Later this month, Virgin Galactic executives and selected customers will gather at Spaceport America in New Mexico for a dedication ceremony. The company plans to launch from the spaceport once construction is complete.

One space tourist who will not be present is Walton, the British-born who lives in Connecticut. Walton booked with in 2004 and became a "founder" - a title given to the first 100 customers who paid in full. He got a refund earlier this year.

Walton is coping with the reality that he will never fly like an astronaut but believes he made the right decision.

He has moved on his latest adventure - investing in genome-mapping pioneer J. Craig Venter's quest to create artificial life.

Explore further: Computer model shows moon's core surrounded by liquid and it's caused by Earth's gravity

More information:
http://www.virgingalactic.com

http://www.xcor.com

http://www.armadilloaerospace.com

http://www.blueorigin.com

3.6 /5 (7 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Space tourism craft reaches glide-test milestone (Update)

May 04, 2011

High over the Mojave Desert, the stubby-winged SpaceShipTwo bent itself into a near-right angle shape and plunged nearly straight downward for more than a minute before unfolding and gliding to a runway landing ...

New Mexico to be site of spaceport

Dec 13, 2005

Officials from the London-based Virgin Galactic and New Mexico say they've signed an agreement to build a $200 million spaceport.

Recommended for you

Titan offers clues to atmospheres of hazy planets

18 hours ago

When hazy planets pass across the face of their star, a curious thing happens. Astronomers are not able to see any changes in the range of light coming from the star and planet system.

Having fun with the equation of time

18 hours ago

If you're like us, you might've looked at a globe of the Earth in elementary school long before the days of Google Earth and wondered just what that strange looking figure eight thing on its side was.

The source of the sky's X-ray glow

Jul 27, 2014

In findings that help astrophysicists understand our corner of the galaxy, an international research team has shown that the soft X-ray glow blanketing the sky comes from both inside and outside the solar system.

User comments : 23

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Husky
4.6 / 5 (11) Oct 04, 2011
space, the final refund.
Birger
3 / 5 (4) Oct 04, 2011
The devil is in the details. The passengers are not test pilots who accept a one-percent risk of dying, so the suborbital craft must be more reliable and failsafe than the Shuttle or the old X-15. And the company does not have the backing of NASA's massive experience.
1gaetanomarano
1.2 / 5 (6) Oct 04, 2011
-
-
-
can TOURISTS (or scientists) be sent aboard an X-15 (dropped by a B-52) to 62 miles of altitude???
-
clearly they CAN'T since it's TOO DANGEROUS also for a test pilot!!!
-
well, despite the fashionable look of their internal, all the suborbital spacecrafts like the SS2 dropped by a WK2 are EXACTLY the SAME of the experimental and dangerous X-15 dropped by the B-52
-
so, the FAA absolutely NEVER CAN APPROVE this kind of experimental and dangerous suborbital vehicles for COMMON TOURISTS ... unless ... the FAA (as does the Press) will close both eyes about the BIG risks of this new business ...
-
-
-
1gaetanomarano
1.2 / 5 (6) Oct 04, 2011
-
the feathering mechanism is one of the MOST DANGEROUS part of the VERY dangerous SS2 and its main design flaw since it's a MECHANICAL (then, with an high risk of failure) device, but, on which, the two pilots and six passengers MUST rely to come back to Earth alive!
-
just imagine if it doesn't work on descend with the unbraked SS2 that BURNS in the atmosphere OR if the SS2 engine stops work at half the ascent and the SS2 that falls back with its tanks still full of propellants and the feathering mechanism not able to brake a too heavy SS2 that falls at high speed crashing and exploding on land OR with the movable ends of the wings, in feather mode, that will be detached at the reentry in the dense atmosphere due to the too high weight and speed of the SS2
-
1gaetanomarano
1 / 5 (5) Oct 04, 2011
-
or imagine if, after a successful ascent and reentry, the feathering mechanism doesn't work turning back to the gliding mode OR if only half of the wings will turns to glide mode and the SS2 will go to stall, falling and spinning at high speed like a propeller until it crashes on land!
-
and the same (and worse) thing could happen if only half of the feathering mechanism will work well, after the SS2 has reached 62 miles, with the vehicle that will spin at high speed until it will burn in the atmosphere!
-
1gaetanomarano
1 / 5 (4) Oct 04, 2011
-
-
the SS2/WK2 will NOT have ANY of the (well known) safety systems for pilots and tourists aboard, NO parachutes, NO ejectable seats, NO backup feater system, NO launch abort system, NO vacuum-grade spacesuits, NOTHING
-
as explained here: www.ghostnasa.com...ism.html
-
-
NotAsleep
5 / 5 (2) Oct 04, 2011
I don't think anyone flying into space is unaware of the danger associated with it. I'm pretty certain congress has already passed a bill that limits the liability of spacecraft owners to ONLY the damage they cause on the ground (i.e. crashing their craft into an unsuspecting house). They are not held liable for the death of a passenger, although it'll probably affect their future business...

@ 1gaetanomorano, that's a very difficult tag! Also, there have been LOTS of successful parasitic aircraft flown in the past. However, with the advent of mid-air refueling, parasitic aircraft were made obsolete

EDIT: You make it sound like they're not testing their designs! There are teams of professional engineers that are guaranteed to design an acceptable safety limit into the designs. Key word: Acceptable
1gaetanomarano
1 / 5 (5) Oct 04, 2011
-
"I don't think anyone flying into space is unaware of the danger associated with it."
-
true, but they expect/want that all best safety systems are adopted on the spacecrafts they will fly on
-
unfortunately, both the SS2 and the Lynx, do have ZERO safety systems (I repeat, ZERO safety systems) so, the risks to fly with them appear to be really TOOOOOO HIGH
-
the Space Shuttle was designed and tested by over 3,000 (not just few dozens like the SS2) of the BEST aerospace engineers of the Planet, but two Shuttle crashed in 135 flights, killing 14 astronauts
-
however, if you think that an SS2 is safe, please post here a link to the LIST of the SS2 safety systems ...
-
Jeddy_Mctedder
2.5 / 5 (8) Oct 04, 2011
americans dont' want to take risks anymore. what a bunch of pansies.
NotAsleep
2 / 5 (4) Oct 04, 2011
Jeddy Mctedder, ever been out west? The borderline between risk and stupidity is very blurry there
stripeless_zebra
1 / 5 (3) Oct 04, 2011
And how about SpaceX. Will they refund the taxpayers if they fail?
NotAsleep
3 / 5 (1) Oct 04, 2011
Woah! Do people not believe me or not like the comment? Granted it was a joke but I live in Utah and can vouch that there are lots of adrenaline junkies out there pushing the boundries of "acceptable risk". Most would probably sell their souls to go skiing on Enceladus or mountain climbing on Mars. They're the kinds of people that wouldn't think twice about the risk of a flight into space but would get bored after 5 minutes of weightlessness.

To be clear, I'm not one of these people... I like the earth to always be within 10 feet of me.
1gaetanomarano
1 / 5 (4) Oct 04, 2011
--
pay $200,000 to fly on a vehicle with ZERO safety systems, just to experience a couple of minutes (not five) of weightlessness, can't be called "smart" nor is an "acceptable risk"
--
Quarl
5 / 5 (2) Oct 04, 2011
--
pay $200,000 to fly on a vehicle with ZERO safety systems, just to experience a couple of minutes (not five) of weightlessness, can't be called "smart" nor is an "acceptable risk"
--


There's an old retort that goes something like "And people in Hell want icewater." The plain fact of the matter is that there will always be risk. There have been automobiles since the late 1800's yet thousands still die in auto accidents every year. There is no such thing as a perfectly safe spacecraft. Besides, it's their money; if they want to take the risk that's their choice. I'm sure the flight waiver has some interesting wording.
1gaetanomarano
1 / 5 (3) Oct 04, 2011
---
there are two BIG FLAWS in your comparation between the SS2 and the early cars or airplanes
---
the first is that, cars and airplanes was/are/will be two ESSENTIAL transportation systems for our economy that we MUST use accepting all the risks, while, the suborbital trips are completely useless
---
the second is that, the early cars and airplanes was so dangerous because all the modern safety systems (like, e.g. the airbags) was COMPLETELY UNKNOWN or UNAVAILABLE. while, today, ALL the best safety systems for spacecrafts are WELL KNOWN, ready AVAILABLE and TESTED in decades of development and use, but, the SS2 and Lynx do NOT implement NONE of these systems ONLY to SAVE MONEY and also because the suborbital companies do have RUSH to make PROFITS with the "suborbital tourists"
---
in other words, the suborbital vehicles are TOO dangerous "by design" and NOT because the safety systems are yet to be invented
---
1gaetanomarano
1 / 5 (3) Oct 04, 2011
---
build the SS2 with ZERO safety systems, is like, deliberately, sell all modern cars without airbags, abs, safety belts, etc. or build the jet fighters without ejectable seats or make surgery without anesthesia, despite all these safety systems are ready available
---
NotAsleep
not rated yet Oct 05, 2011
the first is that, cars and airplanes was/are/will be two ESSENTIAL transportation systems for our economy that we MUST use accepting all the risks, while, the suborbital trips are completely useless

Then how about comparing it to skydiving, bungee jumping, or acrobatics in airshows with planes that DON'T have ejection seats

the second is that, the early cars and airplanes was so dangerous because all the modern safety systems (like, e.g. the airbags) was COMPLETELY UNKNOWN or UNAVAILABLE. while, today, ALL the best safety systems for spacecrafts are WELL KNOWN

Then why do government spacecraft still crash and why do astronauts still die during missions? I'm not sure why you're so upset about the lack of safety on these things... I'm pretty certain it wouldn't affect my life much if a billionaire became a flaming crater in the earth
1gaetanomarano
1 / 5 (1) Oct 05, 2011
--
the 14 Shuttle astronauts died, because that vehicle was designed without any backup system, exactly like the SS2
--
1gaetanomarano
1 / 5 (2) Oct 05, 2011
--
assuming that an SS2 will be as reliable as a Shuttle (but I don't believe it will be possible without the army of NASA engineers and scientists, the billion$ invested in the Shuttle program, the thicker crew cabin, the vacuum-grade spacesuits, etc.) we should have (at least) two lethal accidents every 135 SS2 flights, with 4 pilots and 12 billionaires dead, for nothing
--
Jotaf
5 / 5 (1) Oct 08, 2011
If it turns out there's a 1% chance of dying in one of these things, I'm sure the thrill seekers won't mind. If you take it away from them, they will still do other things with other great risks of dying anyway, so you're not accomplishing anything.

At least they helped advance the state of human technology and help us take off from this planet. Remember, they're *volunteers*. As you said: it's not an essential service! It's entirely optional.
1gaetanomarano
1 / 5 (2) Oct 09, 2011
-
"1% chance of dying"
-
ok, but, just CLEARLY say to all these millionaires, that, this kind of flights has 1% (but I think MUCH MORE than 1%) of risk to DIE, because, so far, my true impression, is that they believe will fly on a 100% SAFE vehicle, like a 747 flight in Business Class!
-
Jotaf
5 / 5 (1) Oct 09, 2011
Most people already have at least some degree of fear of flight; and that's commercial flights. Extrapolating to spaceflight, I don't think anyone will think it's 100% safe. It's common sense that going into space, a *very* hostile environment, is risky, as you have pointed out.
Jhon_Legrand
1 / 5 (1) Oct 25, 2011
hey guys this is a wonderfull tourist post and excellent blog its really nice to read this type of articles you can visit / for similar note