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
"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
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
(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. 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
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
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
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
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."