Tickets for a 90-minute journey into space are about to go on sale to the general public – and the first commercial tourist flights with Virgin Galactic are set to start later this year.
Sir Richard Branson’s space exploration company will start selling reservations from Wednesday 16 February,
One third of the total price – US$450,000 (£331,000) – must be paid upfront as a deposit. The total cost of a ticket works out at £60 per second of flight time.
The chief executive of Virgin Galactic, Michael Colglazier, said: “We plan to have our first 1,000 customers on board at the start of commercial service later this year.”
Around 600 pioneers have already signed up ahead of tickets going on general sale, and are founder members of the “Future Astronaut membership community”.
The 90-minute journeys will depart from Spaceport America, outside the town of Truth or Consequences in New Mexico. Each will be preceded by several days of training.
The journey to the edge of space will begin with the spacecraft attached to a twin-fuselage aircraft, for what Virgin Galactic calls a “signature air launch”.
At an altitude of 45,000 feet (8.5 miles), the craft detaches from the jet and fires its engines for a Mach 3 climb to reach the edge of space – about 55 miles above sea level.
”The spaceship gracefully flips while astronauts enjoy several minutes of out-of-seat weightlessness and breathtaking views of earth from the spaceship’s 17 windows,” says Virgin Galactic.
The firm also promises: “Upon return from this transformational experience, astronauts will begin a meaningful journey to create positive impact with the perspective that can only come from seeing our beautiful planet from space.”
Until now the highest altitude achievable in normal commercial travel has been 60,000 feet (11.4 miles), the cruising altitude of Concorde.
Sir Richard’s transportation business interests began in 1984 with the creation of Virgin Atlantic – competing with British Airways on long-haul air routes.
His quest to send tourists into space began in 2004, with an initial price tag of $250,000 (currently £184,000).
The risks of such a pioneering venture have been highlighted twice: in 2007 when a rocket motor test in California’s Mojave Desert left three workers dead, and in 2014, when a Virgin Galactic craft broke apart during a test flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other.
Earlier in 2014, Sir Richard told The Independent: “It’s been tough. The thing that’s proved really difficult is rocket science.”
Sir Richard made a successful test flight in July 2021, just ahead of his rival to unlock routine spaceflight – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Mr Bezos’ Blue Origin enterprise plans to take tourists one step beyond, past the so-called Kármán line at 62 miles above sea level.
This measure was proposed as the boundary between the earth’s atmosphere and outer space in the early days of cosmic exploration by the scientist, Theodore von Kármán. It is widely accepted as marking the threshold of space.
But Nasa, the US Air Force and others consider the frontier between the atmosphere and space to begin 50 miles up.