At 60,000 feet, we have reached Mach 2.5 and are still climbing. The sky has turned dark blue, and the earth below is distinctly curved. At 75,000 feet, the sky is black, and a translucent-blue hue hangs over the curvature. By God, that is the entirety of the atmosphere, I think. I’m astonished by its thinness. I take photos of the marvelous view—and vow to come back.
This is part of my MiG-25 training flight to the edge of space. We topped out that day at 16 miles, about a quarter of the way to what is considered outer space (62 miles). To go the remaining distance and become an official astronaut, I have purchased a ticket from Virgin Galactic, which, if all goes according to plan, will start its commercial space-flight program in 2013.
A ticket isn’t cheap. Prospective astronauts—close to 500 of them now—are paying $200,000 a pop. The unofficial list (Virgin does not publicly disclose names) reads like a who’s who: Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, Sigourney Weaver, Paris Hilton and Prince Harry. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic and Virgin Group, says his family will be with him on the first commercial flight.
Those who want to be among the first 500 to fly have paid the entire amount up front. Others, myself included, have put down a 10 percent deposit; the remainder is due 100 days before liftoff. I am passenger no. 610 and scheduled to become a “touristnaut” by 2014. Like me, many signing up are adventurers who have seen and done it all. I’ve driven Indy cars at 200 miles an hour, climbed the Matterhorn, swam without a wet suit at the North Pole and skied to the South Pole. The last big thing left for me is a space trip. Others are rich, young Internet hotshots; others are baby boomers, not necessarily rich, but with a dream. They grew up in the 1960s during the Mercury and Apollo programs, believing they, too, would someday reach space—and they are willing to spend a good portion of their savings to do it.
Lots of companies have promised baby boomers the thrill of space flight and have done so for decades. Yet, collectively, we still wait. Private rocketeers, including Blue Origin (headed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos), XCOR Aerospace and Armadillo Aerospace, are well into testing but have not flown humans. Outside of three governments—the United States, Russia and China—there’s been just one privately funded human space program. The milestone happened on October 4, 2004, when Brian Binnie finessed SpaceShipOne—the craft financed by Paul Allen and built by Burt Rutan—to an altitude of 367,442 feet, or 69 miles, winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize in the process. Binnie’s flight was the second leg of the prize, which mandated two flights in the same vehicle within two weeks.
As a result of that success, Branson placed a $100 million order for a fleet of five bigger spacecraft: SpaceShipTwos. Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, built SS1 to carry three people; his newer SS2 will carry eight. It will not launch from a pad in the traditional sense. Like SS1, it will be carried by a mother ship—in this case WhiteKnightTwo—to 50,000 feet. There it will be dropped, and after clearing the mother ship, its rocket engine will fire (see “What Does Space Tourism Feel Like?” below).
SS2 will not orbit the earth as the first space tourist, Dennis Tito, did in 2001. But Tito spent $20 million—or 100 times the Virgin ticket price—to ride a Soyuz rocket and spend a week at the International Space Station. Instead, the Virgin flight will be similar to Alan Shepard’s historic Mercury excursion in 1961: a suborbital arc through space, offering spectacular views and a few minutes of weightlessness.
Because of the passive nature of the Virgin experience, climbing aboard SS2 doesn’t require rigorous physical or technical training like, say, driving a race car at 200 miles per hour. That said, if one decides to sign up for a flight, one should familiarize oneself with space-like experiences beforehand. Tourists are paying more than a thousand dollars per minute for their time in space, so they had better savor it.
Two of the most disorienting aspects of suborbital space travel are weightlessness and extreme altitude. Both can be nausea-inducing—as well as frightening. Virgin has its own program designed for ticket holders, including g-force training in a centrifuge. That’s fine, but I wanted to do some separate things on my own.
As part of its cosmonaut-training program, Russia uses the Iluyshin 76 cargo plane to simulate weightlessness with parabolic flight. An aircraft climbs to 35,000 feet, then goes into a controlled 40-degree dive for about 30 seconds. In that half-minute, fliers are weightless. The plane pulls up at about 25,000 feet and climbs again. In the “up” phase, passengers feel a little more than two g’s—twice their body weight.
Fliers alternate between weightlessness and positive g’s for several parabolas. For comfort, the cargo area is fitted with thick floor cushions, but it’s windowless. (In the United States, similar flights are done in retrofitted B-727s; see “How to Book,” below)
Preflight literature said a quarter of fliers can become sick, or three in my group of 12. I took Dramamine as a precaution. I also had a bland breakfast to settle my stomach: bread, muffins—no eggs, meat or juice.
After climbing to seven miles and starting our first controlled dive, the group began to come up off the floor. Thinking I had to use force, I pushed off decisively. Wrong! A moment later, I banged my head on the ceiling. When weightless, one quickly learns that the force and angle of what is last touched directly determines speed and trajectory; there’s no way to correct yourself, like you can in water. While fumbling with a small bag containing good-luck tokens from friends, it got away from me. My first instinct was to breaststroke toward it, which I did. Result: I went nowhere and just felt stupid as I continued to float in place while the bag bounced off the wall.
All my life I’ve wanted to experiment with water while weightless, as astronauts do. On our fifth parabola, I pulled a bottle of Evian from my flight suit and opened it. The droplets dispersed in shiny, marble-sized balls and floated about the cabin. I tried to catch as many as possible in my mouth, as if they were M&M’s.
We did flips and were “thrown” like forward passes toward the front of the cabin by strapped-down technicians. By the last of our ten parabolas, though, everyone was looking a little green. It was fun and did make me nauseated, but not to the point of vomiting. When we reach our apogee on SS2, I’ll be ready to unbelt and float around the cabin, taking photos and video of the haunting vista.
Speaking of that vista, next on my prep list was a high-altitude jet flight. The highest someone can now fly commercially is to the edge of space in an old Russian MiG. I headed to Zhukovsky Air Base, in Moscow, which was once so secret it didn’t appear on maps, but since the Cold War ended, entrepreneurs book flights to give tourists the thrill of a lifetime.
After a big buildup at my morning flight briefing, I wasn’t quite ready for what awaited me on the runway. The MiG-25 I was to fly in looked ancient, like something out of Dr. Strangelove: frayed seat harnesses; chipped paint; nothing digital in the cockpit. I would fly in a separate cockpit on the nose of the jet. The pilot, Alex Garnaev, was ten feet behind me in another cockpit and would communicate via radio.
Once I was strapped in with a pressurized suit, a helmet and an oxygen mask, Garnaev gave me final instructions. “If I say, ‘Jim, eject, eject, eject,’ this is not command for discussion, only for fulfillment.” In broken English, he emphasized emergency evacuation procedures. “But don’t pull this handle,” he added, gesturing at a mechanism near my seat. “You could eject me.”
Oh, boy. I knew the flight wouldn’t be first class, but accidental ejection of the pilot was something I hadn’t considered.
After a jolting takeoff powered by afterburners, we quickly rose to 30,000 feet, the altitude at which passenger jets cruise. Then, as we accelerated to the speed of sound (about 670 miles per hour), Garnaev said to watch the instrument gauges. The needles—and the plane—should react when we went supersonic. Sure enough, just as the gauge flashed Mach 1, there was a slight shudder, and then the ride became incredibly smooth. For the first time in my life, I was traveling faster than thunder. We continued to accelerate. The sensation of speed became hard to judge because any frame of reference was absent; we were way above the clouds. Then we gently circled back toward the base, already 180 miles away, and started a steep climb. I really began to feel the g-forces. The small camera in my hand suddenly felt like it weighed ten pounds!
At 80,000 feet, we slowed appreciably. There wasn’t enough oxygen for the jets to maintain speed. It felt as if we were hanging in the sky. There was a distinct sense of peacefulness, there at the edge of space. Blue turned to black, and the world stood still for a moment.
Suddenly, with no warning, we were in a screaming dive. I was alarmed until Garnaev radioed that we had reached our apogee. In his judgment, to continue to climb—and, therefore, to slow—would risk the plane losing aerodynamics. Translation: We could have fallen out of the sky like a lead pipe.
Once we stabilized at 30,000 feet and slowed to subsonic speed, descending was fun. The ground was up, the sky down, as Garnaev did a 360-degree roll to the left. I felt slightly nauseated. He asked me to conduct the same maneuver. Since we were in a trainer, I had a throttle stick too. The stick handled heavily, like a car without power steering, but I managed to muscle it around.
Safely back on the ground, Garnaev told me we’d just burned 5,000 gallons of jet fuel, rocketed upward 16 miles and reached Mach 2.6—all in 35 minutes. I was a bit wobbly but happy: no accidental ejections, no incidents.
On paper, at least, I am now ready for my Virgin SS2 flight. Once things really get going, regular excursions are planned from Spaceport America, just completed in southern New Mexico. My biggest fear is the spacecraft having an accident before my flight number comes up. If, God forbid, that occurs, what about the program?
“If it happened early on, it would be a tough one to overcome,” says Branson. “If it happens two or three years into the program, and it’s been proven that the program works, then I think it would most likely be able to continue. Commercial airlines occasionally have accidents, and it doesn’t result in all airlines being grounded, as long as we know what went wrong. You fix the problem and move on.”
In the end, I’m willing to take the chance. My previous adventures have been risky and worthwhile endeavors, for sure—but all terrestrial. Space? Now that’s strange—and unchartered—territory for me. Bring it on, Richard!
How to Book
To be among the first 500 to fly on SpaceShipTwo, you must put up the full $200,000 now (virgingalactic.com). If you want to fly in the second group (501 passengers and up), $20,000 secures a spot. The money does not accumulate interest, but it is refundable if you change your mind. Virgin says a small processing fee will be deducted.
Zero Gravity Corporation (gozerog.com) runs weightlessness flights for about $4,950. For MiG flights to the edge of space, contact Incredible Adventures (incredible-adventures.com). These run $20,000 to $60,000, and the company now operates out of Russia’s Sokol Air Base.
If price is not an issue, you fly to the International Space Station via a Soyuz rocket, as Dennis Tito and six others have done. It will cost $50 million–plus, now that U.S. shuttles have been retired and Russian vehicles are the only way for regular astronauts to get to the ISS for the next few years. Contact Space Adventures (spaceadventures.com).
What Does Space Tourism Feel Like?
“It’s a whole-body experience flying to suborbital space,” says Brian Binnie, who in 2004 piloted SpaceShipOne to win the Ansari X Prize. “Remember, you’re riding a rocket motor for a minute and a half getting up there. As a passenger, you are sitting there, but your senses are still fully engaged. There’s a lot of noise, vibration, g-forces on your body—and you are saturated by that.
“But at rocket-motor shutdown, it’s as though somebody throws a switch and, just like that, all the shaking and shuddering, shrieking and shrilling disappear. And right with it, you become weightless. And all the tension that was there is now gone. Your limbs don’t weigh anything.
“The cabin is big enough that you can get out of your seat. You only have to think about lifting and drifting to the nearest window, and it happens. You have this body sensation coupled with the most marvelous view. It is otherworldly.”