Despite a fatal accident last year, space tourism company Virgin Galactic announced it will be carrying its first paying customers “within 18 months to two years”, according to chief executive George Whitesides.
Speaking at the Mojave Air and Space Port, Whitesides said the company is still on track for lift-off, despite having to rebuild a replacement for its crashed SpaceShipTwo aircraft.
Last year’s loss was a major blow to Virgin Galactic which saw pilot Michael Alsbury killed and the vehicle lost. The crash was determined to be caused by the premature deployment of the vehicle’s rotating tail boom “feather” re-entry system while its rockets were still firing.
The system is only designed to be used when the craft starts drifting back to earth.
The final NTSB report is due in a few weeks and Virgin Galactic is “confident this wasn’t a design issue”, although it remains to be seen why it was even possible for the ‘feather’ to deploy at the time it did. Whitesides addressed this, saying “it’ll be made physically harder to unlock the feathering system at the wrong time”.
Whitesides went on insist that paying customers, at $250,000 a pop, have’t been put off by the accident. “The vast majority of our customers, so about 98 per cent, have been really terrific, very supportive. What we are doing is not easy, it’s an historic thing. What we are doing is opening up space to the rest of us. We are democratizing space.”
If Virgin Galactic can launch within the 18 month to two year window it will become the first commercial operator to offer flights into space. While the system will not get would-be astronauts into orbit, it will give them multiple minutes of weightlessness along with a pretty cool view.
SpaceX, of California, also has plans to launch space tourists but is pursuing more lucrative NASA crew missions and satellite launches before it gets into full on space tourism. By developing the technology for NASA it may partner with Bigelow Aerospace, builder of inflatable orbiting hotels, to deliver the full astronaut experience: multiple days in zero g, orbiting the earth.
Both the price and timetable for such adventures have not been announced, though you can expect it to be a great deal more than $250,000.Stay Connected