My ticket into space looks like a bargain

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Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two flies over the Mojave Desert in California in this handout provided by Griffin Communications Group.

Washington - Three years ago, I bought a $200 000 (R2.4-million) ticket to fly into space aboard Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

I chose the “poor man’s” option, which requires only a 10 percent deposit. Three months before I fly, I will raid my savings for the remaining $180 000 balance.

So I won’t be among the first bunch of 500 flyers, including Justin Bieber and Formula One legend Michael Schumacher who, according to reports, paid for their tickets up front.

Virgin Group chairman Branson and his family will board the very first commercial flight. He has suggested that could happen as early as Christmas. As passenger number 610, I’ll probably get my turn in 2015.

A milestone was reached in April when, for the first time in flight, Virgin Galactic lit the rocket motor on SpaceShipTwo, sending the craft supersonic.

Capitalising quickly, Branson raised the price of a suborbital space ticket by $50 000 to $250 000 (we early purchasers still get the original price).

The new development has potential space tourists’ hearts ticking faster. It’s been a long wait – nearly nine years – since the smaller craft, SpaceShipOne, went on its history-making voyages.

Yet rockets are unpredictable. In 2007, three workers were killed by an explosion on the ground while testing an early version of the SS2 engine.

Whereas SS1 could carry three people, SS2 can manage eight: two pilots and six passengers. Like SS1, it will fly aloft on the underside of a mothership, WhiteKnightTwo. At 50 000 feet, the craft will be jettisoned, then fire its rocket engine.

Boarding SS2 doesn’t require special training. All you need are money and guts.

That said, to get the most out of the flight, you might want to familiarise yourself with the disorientating effects of high altitude beforehand, especially when your time in space is costing thousands of dollars a minute.

“You’re riding a rocket motor,” cautions astronaut Brian Binnie, who piloted SS1 to win the Ansari X Prize in 2004. “There’s a lot of noise, vibration, G-forces – and you are saturated by that.”

VG doesn’t have its own official space prep programme, but does recommend a flight simulatorcentrifuge experience at the National AeroSpace Training and Research Centre (Nastar), in Southampton, Pennsylvania.

I wanted a real space-flight experience, too – or at least something as close as I could get to the real deal.

First up was a MiG flight. Since Concorde’s operations ceased in 2003, the highest folks can fly commercially is in old fighter jets. I headed to a Cold War-era air base near Moscow for my adventure.

Once I was strapped in, the MiG-25 quickly took my pilot and me to 30 000 feet.

As we accelerated through the speed of sound (about 1 000km/h), there was a slight disturbance, then the ride became spookily smooth. I began to feel the G-forces. A tiny tape recorder I was holding felt like it weighed about 4.5kg.

At 84 000 feet, the sky overhead was black, and a diffused blue hue covered the Earth’s curvature. The world stopped as we hung in the heavens. Just as suddenly, we were in a disorientating dive, stabilising again at 30 000 feet for aerobatic manoeuvres.

Back on terra firma, the ground crew said we’d climbed 26km and hit Mach 2.6 – all in half an hour.

In SS2, I will go even faster – exceeding Mach 3 – and travel four times as high.

As intense as the MiG flight was, I did not experience weightlessness. For that, I needed a separate venue.

Russia uses cargo planes to simulate the experience.

An Ilyushin Il-76 climbs to 35 000 feet, then goes into a controlled dive for 30 seconds.

In that half-minute, flyers are weightless. The plane pulls up at 25 000 feet and climbs again. Passengers alternate between the weightlessness and ascent phases.

Convinced I had to use force, I pushed off as we went into our first dive. A few moments later my head banged the ceiling.

When weightless, one learns immediately that brute strength is not needed – and there’s no way to correct mid-air.

I pulled a bottle from my pocket and opened it. The water dispersed in ball-bearing-sized blobs. It was good fun, but by the last of a dozen parabolas, everyone was feeling nauseous.

Having done my training, I’m nearly ready for the rigours of SS2. I still plan to experience the Nastar centrifuge before the year is out.

Could an early accident derail later excursions like mine? In discussions with Branson and SS2 builder Burt Rutan, the feeling was that if it’s something identifiable and can be prevented with a logical fix, it won’t have a big impact. But if the problem is more systemic, it could be much more challenging.

An analogy is the early airline industry, where mishaps were part of progress. Look at the business today. In fact, many say VG’s ultimate suborbital space model is really just a Concorde on steroids, where a flight between, say, Sydney and Los Angeles would take just a few hours compared with current 18-hour commercial flights.

On September 25, VG has a ticket-holder event scheduled at Mojave Airport. The company is cagey about what’s planned, though this writer is hoping for a test flight of SS2 all the way to space. If that occurs, you can be sure the line of would-be astronauts will suddenly grow. Glad I have my ticket.

l To purchase a VG ticket: virgingalactic.com. Zero Gravity (gozerog.com) runs weightlessness flights ($5 000). MiG flights ($20 000 and upwards) are offered via Incredible Adventures (incredible-adventures.com). For centrifuge/flight simulation ($3 000), try Nastar (nastarcenter.com).

James M Clash is the author of The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1960s (AskMen, 2012). He writes on adventure for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. – Washington Post-Bloomberg

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