11Oct2019

Virgin Galactic Is Close To Flying Tourists, But It’ll Cost $250,000.

When Lori Fraleigh unwrapped the present her husband had given her for her 38th birthday, she found a curious surprise: a model of a spaceship. It was cool, sure, but a toy would be better suited for her young children, then 5 and 1, not her.

Future astronaut Lori Fraleigh, at the Virgin hotel in San Francisco, was gifted a Virgin Galactic trip to space by her husband. (Christie Hemm Klok for The Washington Post)

Then she noticed the ticket. It took Fraleigh, a Silicon Valley executive, a moment to realize what her husband had purchased for her: a trip to space with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. “I went through a lot of crazy emotions, like, ‘Did you really buy this?’ ” she recalled of the moment in 2011. “ ‘Do we still have enough money to remodel the kitchen?’ ”

Today, her children are 13 and 9. The kitchen remodel has long since been completed. But Fraleigh is still waiting for her trip to space. For years, Branson has been pushing a quixotic vision for the future, where his spacecraft would ferry passengers off Earth as frequently as airplanes. But for all the talk about a new Space Age full of citizen astronauts, the journey has been fitful, and filled with setbacks, including the death of a test pilot in 2014 after a harrowing crash.

But now, 15 years after Branson founded Virgin Galactic, space tourism could be tantalizingly close to becoming a reality. The company has flown to the edge of space twice and says its first paying customers could reach space next year. Another space venture, Blue Origin, founded by Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos almost 20 years ago, hopes to conduct its first test flight with people this year, though it hasn’t announced prices or sold any tickets. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

And NASA recently announced that it would allow private citizens to fly to the International Space Station on spacecraft built by SpaceX and Boeing. Which means that Fraleigh may soon finally get her five minutes of weightlessness, a view that promises to be spectacular and a test to see if she has the right stuff. Fraleigh has dreamed of being an astronaut since she was a kid and has solid space geek credentials, including having attended Space Camp as a teenager.

But she didn’t think she could become a NASA astronaut and instead became a tech executive in Silicon Valley, a career that meant her family could absorb Virgin Galactic’s charge ($200,000 per ticket in 2011) without financial hardship. A mother who spends weekends ferrying her children to soccer, baseball and music lessons, she doesn’t look like a thrill seeker. The most adventurous thing she’s done? Driving a go-cart in college, and “I’ve been on some hikes up in Lake Tahoe that were on the strenuous side.”

Now she’s preparing for a ride in Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, a sleek spaceplane with a rocket motor strong enough to send two pilots and as many as six passengers more than 50 miles high, where the Federal Aviation Administration says the edge of space begins. The spaceship is tethered to the belly of a large, twin-fuselage airplane that carries it to an altitude of about 40,000 feet. Then SpaceShipTwo is released, fires its engine and rockets off through the atmosphere.

For decades, people have dreamed of such adventures. After the Apollo missions, Pan Am started a waiting list for tickets to the moon that by 1971 stretched 90,000 names long. Famed CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite signed up, as did future president Ronald Reagan. Later, in the 1970s and early 1980s, NASA was so convinced that the space shuttle would, as the name implied, offer regular service to Earth orbit that a committee was formed to sort out the sticky problem of how to choose the first private citizens to fly. For today’s space companies, it’s anyone willing — and wealthy enough — to pay the steep cost. NASA said it would cost $35,000 a night for stays on the ISS, and the price to get there is estimated to be $50 million. Virgin Galactic has said it may in the short term raise the price of its tickets, which today cost $250,000.

Despite the high costs, Virgin Galactic expects high demand from the wealthy. While it completes the testing phase of the spacecraft this year, the company projects flying 66 paying customers in 2020, more than 700 in 2021 and nearly 1,000 the following year. By 2023, when it expects to fly 1,562 paying passengers on 270 flights, it plans to have nearly $600 million in annual revenue. Earlier this year, Virgin Galactic announced it would go public by merging with a New York investment firm, a move that Branson said would “open space to more investors and in doing so, open space to thousands of new astronauts.”

Already, 600 people have signed up for what Virgin Galactic describes as a transformative experience of seeing Earth from space, what astronauts call the “overview effect.” That’s more people than have been to space since 1961, when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space. Source:  The Washington Post

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