The future of manned spaceflight is coming into focus. Whether it's through NASA's Orion program, its partnerships with private companies or in the form of the quick, space-immersion experiences that Virgin Galatic’s SpaceshipTwo spaceships are soon to offer.
Billionaire Richard Branson recently placed a full-scale replica of his spaceship on the deck of the Intrepid Air and Space Museum in New York City. You can see it for yourself in the gallery above and Vine video below.
Despite the company working on private spaceflight for almost a decade, not many people have seen SpaceshipTwo (even an exact replica) in person or know a lot about what it will be like to fly in one of these things. Until now.
During a recent "Future of Space" panel inside the Intrepid Air and Space Museum, a collection of space and science experts, including Public Radio Science Friday Host Ira Flatow, Astronaut Mike Massimino, NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowsi and Vice President of Special Projects at Virgin Galactic Will Pomerantz, discussed how NASA and U.S. companies will put normal men and women in space. However, it was Pomerantz's play-by-play description of what it will feel like to be a passenger on SpaceshipTwo that captivated the audience, some of which included current Virgin Galactic ticket holders who have paid $250,000 for the privilege to fly into space.
SpaceshipTwo is relatively large in person (though tiny compared to, say, one of NASA's Space Shuttles) and will have enough room for six passengers and two pilots.
There's ample room inside for the seats and, when the time is right, moving about the cabin. There are also a lot of windows.
Unlike a classic spaceflight, where the rocket sits on a launch pad and blasts off into space, Virgin Galactic's SpaceshipTwo is attached to the belly of an airplane.
The plane flies to an altitude of approximately 50,000 feet (a bit higher than your run-of-the-mill airliner), and then releases SpaceshipTwo.
The spaceship freefalls for a few seconds, then the pilots light up the vehicle's hybrid rocket motor.
That engine burns for about a minute. It "accelerates you from not very fast to the speed of sound in about seven seconds or so," said Pomerantz.
When the engine stops firing, you’ll be traveling at Mach 3.5 (more than three times the speed of sound).
During this time you are traveling straight up.
When you reach the peak altitude of your flight, you'll be above the boundary that NASA defines as the edge of our atmosphere and the beginning of space (76 miles above Earth's surface).
You are officially an astronaut.
For the next four-to-five minutes, you can unbuckle your seatbelt and float about the cabin. Virgin Galactic will train its astronaut passengers on how to orient themselves in zero gravity and float without bumping into each other.
There are, in SpaceshipTwo, more windows than passengers. "So you don’t have to worry about an annoying neighbor blocking a good view," said Pomerantz.
Once you look out one of the large windows, "You’ll see the black sky of space. You’ll see the curvature of the earth, that thin layer of atmosphere," explained Pomerantz.
An hour and a half later, you're back on the ground, in the same New Mexico facility where you first launched.
The timing and price of spaceflight
At time of this writing, Virgin Galactic had sold 701 tickets. Pomerantz believes the sky-high-price will fall significantly over the next 10 years. "The design of these vehicles [was] expensive to build and test, and very cheap to fly. This means once we pay back that initial investment, we do tomorrow’s flight for not a whole lot of money." Eventually, said Pomerantz, you might be able to choose between buying an SUV or going into space.
Virgin Galactic will make its inaugural flight, with Branson as a passenger, this year and broadcast it all live on The Today Show.
After the panel, Mashable grabbed Pomerantz, Massimino and Ferdowsi for a quick chat about who's ready to fly on SpaceshipTwo and what to wear on passenger spaceflight. See our talk in the video below.
By Lance Ulanoff, Mashable
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