After decade of hype, space tourism might be ready to launch

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Blue Origin successfully launched and recovered its New Shepard booster on Jan. 23. Photo Credit: Blue Origin

Fifteen years after Richard Branson launched Virgin Galactic and his ambitious plans for taking tourists into space, the billionaire entrepreneur's much-delayed dream finally appears to be close to reality.

Virgin Galactic last month logged its second successful manned flight into space, and the head of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) predicted the industry could see the launch of space tourism as early as this summer.

"It's going to be an interesting year," said CSF president Eric Stallmer. "I'm not sure if we're supposed to use the word 'race,' but it will be an interesting effort to see who will be the first to bring passengers up, whether it will be Virgin or [Amazon founder Jeff Bezos'] Blue Origin. But Virgin is doing all the things right that they're supposed to do, and I think they are looking strong for possibly this summer bringing up passengers."

A third contender in the commercial space race, Elon Musk's SpaceX, is also making progress. Earlier this month, it successfully launched the first American spacecraft since the retirement of the space shuttles that is capable of carrying passengers. That effort, however, currently is focused on carrying astronauts to the International Space Station rather than on space tourism. And Stallmer estimates that Musk's plan to launch a passenger into orbit around the moon is still a few years away. 

Blue Origin traditionally has been secretive about its operations, but like Virgin Galactic, its plans call for propelling tourists into space to view the curvature of the Earth and experience weightlessness. 

Virgin Galactic, after years of overly ambitious predictions that saw Branson promising spaceflights as early as 2007, then nearly every year after, has also become much more tight-lipped and prediction-averse, especially after the company's SpaceShip Two broke apart on a test flight over the Mojave Desert in 2014, killing one of its two pilots.

After Virgin's second successful spaceflight last month of the spaceship VSS Unity, which reached an altitude of 56 miles above the Mojave Desert, Branson said only, "The next few months promise to be the most thrilling yet."

(There is no set altitude that demarcates the line between Earth's atmosphere and outer space, although international treaties use 62 miles above sea level as the beginning of space.)

At this point, Virgin Galactic has begun working on the passenger experience. According to a news release, chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses flew as the third crew member on the second flight to do a live evaluation of cabin dynamics.

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity spaceship zoomed into space on Feb. 22 with three aboard.
Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity spaceship zoomed into space on Feb. 22 with three aboard. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic 2018

"Having Beth fly in the cabin, ... starting to ensure that our customer journey is as flawless as the spaceship itself, brings a huge sense of anticipation and excitement to all of us here who are looking forward to experiencing space for ourselves," said Branson, who has said repeatedly that he plans to be on the first flight carrying passengers.

Virgin Galactic did not respond to a request for interviews or more information about when it expects to begin the $250,000-per-person flights, but Stallmer said the company has already met all of the FAA requirements to begin flying passengers. He predicted, however, that Virgin would likely make at least four more test flights "out of an abundance of caution."

Plans call for Virgin Galactic to make its passenger flights from Spaceport America, the futuristic, $250 million facility New Mexico built as a base for Branson's operations.

Paradoxically, after sitting nearly empty and largely idle since Branson rappelled its glass walls with a bottle of Champagne to commemorate its completion in 2011, the state-run facility that former New Mexico Tourism Secretary Monique Jacobson once predicted would be a tourism draw on par with the Sydney Opera House may itself end up scrambling to be ready for a summer launch, at least from a spectator's standpoint.

After years of delays by Virgin Galactic and the slower-than-expected development generally of the commercial space industry over the past decade, the spaceport has been strapped for funds. Plans to build visitor centers and launch the facility as a major tourism draw fell to the wayside as lawmakers in this poor rural state that was among the last to recover from the Great Recession balked at requests for more public money.

On the Record

Commercial Spaceflight Federation president Eric Stallmer talked about the latest developments in space tourism, including Virgin Galactic's recently completed second test flight. Read More


But Spaceport America CEO Daniel Hicks said business there has begun to pick up as more commercial space operators, including Boeing, have begun using the facility to test their products. Moreover, the state has a new administration that will no doubt be keen on seeing the spaceport take off on its watch.

Hicks said he is eager to work with the new secretaries of economic development and tourism under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat. Among Hicks' goals is to build a welcome center at Spaceport America with a strong educational component where tourists and students can come to learn more about space and operations there.

The state has finished paving a road that links the facility, which sits in the high desert between White Sands Missile Range and the town of Truth or Consequences, to the larger nearby city of Las Cruces, where New Mexico borders Texas and Mexico.

The only tourism-focused space for the general public right now is a small interactive gallery that overlooks the hangar where Virgin will house its spaceship. And that is accessible only on weekends and only by those on guided tours with spaceport partner Final Frontier Tours. The excursions start either in Las Cruces or at a temporary visitors center in Truth or Consequences.

Hicks said he has also been working with state and federal officials, including the Department of Homeland Security, over the past year on developing a plan for handling the crowds that are expected once Virgin starts to fly. 

Currently, there is just a two-lane road leading in and out of the spaceport, with little off-site parking or even shoulders to handle what is expected to be an influx of vehicles and people wanting to witness history. 

Hicks said one of the things he is working on is being able to webcast the launch.

"We can't fit everyone at the spaceport," he said, "so what we need to focus on is having some really nice imagery."

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