Performers hang from wires on the facade of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space terminal at Spaceport America near Las Cruces, New Mexico. The runway, the WhiteKnight Two and SpaceShip Two are shown in reflections on the glass. Photo: Reuters/Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic.
You’re supposed to grow out of wanting to go into space, but if anything, my desire to see this blue sky from above has only increased with age. Notwithstanding a conspiracy theorist-nurturing lack of lunar landings in recent decades, the possibility of going off-planet now seems within closer reach. You used to have to be a super-fit, super-impassive, super-American specimen in order to venture off the Earth; now you just have to be super-rich or in close proximity to someone who is. Even in these gloomy times, the latter seems the more likely prospect: The genetic lottery is no longer open for play, but I might one day win EuroMillions and cultivate close personal relationships with members of the Branson family.
Earlier this week, Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic friends held a modest dedication ceremony for Spaceport America, the New Mexico base from which the era of commercial suborbital spaceflight will eventually launch, possibly as early as 2013. Its gleaming hangar is designed to house the mothership, WhiteKnight Two, and the actual people-carrier, SpaceShip Two (aka the VSS Enterprise). Tickets cost $200,000, which seems like a bargain when benchmarked against bubbly Irish house prices, but is still twice the annual salary of a Nasa astronaut – should they want to take a busman’s holiday.
Deposits “start from $20,000“, apparently, though any would-be passengers should probably read the small print that states how suborbital flights will rise up into space, but won’t actually complete a full orbit – or indeed do anything as exciting as slip off to the Delta Quadrant to chase renegade aliens. In essence, Virgin Galactic’s jumpsuited commercial astronauts will get to feel all weightless and floaty and superior and stuff, without having to spend much time contemplating the black depths of infinity.
Spaceport America’s departures lounge promises to be spine-tingling, but arrivals will surely just be plain tense. What goes up, must come down, but doing so without burning up will be the trick. Branson and his children Sam and Holly will be among the first passengers though, which might prove something of an incentive to make sure all the nuts, bolts and freeze-dried ice-cream are correctly secured before take/lift-off. (Freeze-dried ice-cream, according to an episode of Blue Peter I saw sometime in the late 1980s, is special astronaut food. As far as I’m concerned, that’s all they eat.)
Back when Pluto was still considered a planet, astronauts were remote, unflinching, patriotic veterans of Nasa training; sturdy and fearless. Now they mix freely in the Twittersphere and arm themselves with pepper spray to vanquish love rivals. Who hasn’t been there?
Last year, “astronaut” made its debut appearance in a UK careers’ handbook, with the inclusion naturally dubbed “space: the final career frontier” by headline writers. But soon trips to the stars will be not just work, but pleasure. Wikipedia has a page with the title “list of spaceports“. Even though most of them seem designed purely to fire up more space debris, it’s still exciting. Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal and CEO of SpaceX, is frequently seen walking the corridors of Capitol Hill, lobbying the US government and occasionally muttering something about his plans for the human colonisation of Mars. Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic’s site boasts the words “book with your local accredited space agent”, and maps them.
So my question is… How cold can it be, really?