In the old days, if you wanted to go to space, you had to sit in that contraption that spun really fast, pass a series of physicals no average person could pass, and prove that you were better than a monkey. It was a horrible time for people who wanted to go to space without earning it. Fortunately, times have changed.
Virgin Galactic is offering future rides to suborbital space for $250,000 a pop. Every ticket, obviously, is first class. Owned by billionaire adventurer Richard Charles Nicholas Branson (what a long name), Virgin is currently in the process of testing SpaceShipTwo, the two-pilot ship that will be able to carry six passengers on a weekly basis.
“Once Virgin Galactic starts, they’re going to double the amount of astronauts in a few weeks,” says Stefan Bisciglia, an accredited “space agent” at Specialty Cruise in Gig Harbor, where you can actually buy a ticket.
In case you’re on the fence about going, here is the general itinerary. Before liftoff, ticketholders will head to New Mexico to undergo flight training, where they’ll learn how to cope with g-force and try on their spacesuit. Once the passengers are actually inside, the jet-powered mothership (called WhiteKnightTwo) will carry SpaceShipTwo 50,000 feet into the sky, releasing it to fly to 360,000 feet in the upper atmosphere, generally considered the point at which space begins.
Here the seatbelt light will go off and passengers will be able to experience approximately 4 minutes of weightlessness, as well as some incredible views of space and the curvature of earth, before gliding back down under earth’s stubborn gravitational pull. The entire flight is about 2.5 hours, and in case you’re wondering, there’s no bathroom or free peanuts.
Space agents are an exclusive club. There are about 100 space agents in the world (3 of which live in Washington state), and they’ve sold over 600 tickets for SpaceShipTwo. A few of those were sold by Bisciglia, who was accepted to the program after applying a few times. As part of his selection, he underwent training in Fort Worth, stood for an official ceremony and even met Richard Branson. “He’s very engaging,” says Bisciglia, “but at the same time, he’s got so many people talking to him. I’m not going to pretend I got to know him.”
Though some (not me) have questioned the value of paying $250,000 for a flight that lasts a couple of hours (especially considering there’s no bathroom), Bisciglia didn’t have to do much convincing when selling the tickets. “90 percent of the time people are either going to do it or not,” he says. No one calls trying to decide between space and Acapulco.
When Bisciglia does receive questions, they typically concern safety, how soon the flights are going to begin, and whether you have to be in shape (you don’t). Those who pay the entire $250,000 up front get to leave on earlier flights, while those who merely pay the $25,000 deposit will depart on later ones. So there is, even at this level, a first class.
I tried multiple times for weeks on end to get a hold of a current ticketholder, but for obvious reasons, they’re a tough group to reach. Virgin doesn’t publicize the names of prospective passengers, though various celebrities are confirmed, including Ashton Kutcher, Katy Perry, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Brand, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Justin Bieber and Stephen Hawking (Ocean’s 14?). The price was recently raised from $200,000 to $250,000 (why not), though Hawking got his for free.
Still in the testing phase, there is no specific flight date scheduled, and Virgin simply says they’ll begin departing “when it’s safe.” The single ship fleet is currently being expanded to include four additional ships, which, once ready, are expected to regularly depart from the spaceport in New Mexico a few times a week.
“It’s just like a regular airport,” says Bisciglia, “except it takes you to space.”