Commercial spaceflight's second port of call is Abu Dhabi
It will be the fairground ride of a lifetime, a 4,000kph, rocket-propelled blast to the very edge of space. And, with seats on board Virgin Galactic's VSS Enterprise selling now at US$200,000 (Dh735,000) each, the news this week that Abu Dhabi will host the world's second spaceport means the era of mass space tourism has edged a little closer to reality.
The announcement at the Global Aerospace Summit in Abu Dhabi came as little surprise to industry insiders. Virgin Galactic's partner in the scheme, Aabar Investments, the Abu Dhabi investment fund, has been a 32 per cent stakeholder in Virgin Galactic since it invested US$280 million in July 2009, declaring the partnership to be "in line with Abu Dhabi's plans to inculcate technology research and science and to be the international tourism capital of the region".
For once, though, Abu Dhabi is not claiming a first. Entrepreneur Richard Branson's space project has been more than a decade in the making and the company's first spaceport, in New Mexico in the southern US, is nearing completion.
Meanwhile, the final countdown has started for the first commercial flight to the International Space Station (ISS). Planned for April 30, the Dragon capsule will carry 521 kilos of cargo to orbit and return with 660 kilos of what is basically the station's rubbish.
The launch, by California's Space Exploration Technologies - or SpaceX - is the first of a dozen scheduled resupply missions and represents a changing of the guard, with the Nasa space shuttle making a poignant and symbolic last flight over Washington this week before heading for a museum.
SpaceX is one of a number of companies, including Boeing, making a bid to fill the vacuum created by the decline of Nasa and government funded space flight. Cargo will come first, but private space companies may one day operate as "space taxis", taking passengers to the ISS .
Not that anyone will be reaching for the stars quite yet, even though "across the globe", says the company, "hundreds of Virgin Galactic future astronauts are preparing to turn their dreams into reality".
So far, more than 500 people have signed up - among the latest, the actor Ashton Kutcher - but the first flights, slated originally for 2008, are expected to be still more than a year away.
Yet the reality is that commercial space travel has come of age in a remarkably short time. It was only in April 2003 that Scaled Composites, a small aerospace company founded in 1982 in Mojave, California, unveiled plans to design, build and launch the first private manned space flight.
"Manned space flight is not only for governments to do," said Scaled Composites' founder Burt Rutan later. "We proved it can be done by a small company operating with limited resources and a few dozen dedicated employees."
Well, not that limited: the development of SpaceCraftOne, which was to become the prototype for the Virgin Galactic spacecraft, was bankrolled by the billionaire Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft.
In the beginning, Rutan's sights were set on the Ansari X Prize, on offer to anyone other than a government who could launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice in as many weeks. As the plain X Prize, the bait had been out there, unclaimed, since 1996, but in May 2004 its value was boosted to $10 million by a donation from Anousheh and Amir Ansari, two wealthy Iranians who had emigrated to the US in 1984.
For Rutan, the hike in prize money came just in time. Barely five months later, SpaceShipOne, carried aloft for air-launch by WhiteKnightOne, a specially designed twin-jet research aircraft, claimed the award.
Among those watching closely was Richard Branson. He had sponsored Rutan's two X Prize flights and, shortly after the win, announced that Virgin Galactic would use his system to start offering space tourism flights.
SpaceShipOne, a prototype, never flew again - today, gifted by Allen, it hangs from the ceiling of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. With SpaceShipOne, says the Smithsonian catalogue, "private enterprise crossed the threshold into human spaceflight, previously the domain of government programs", but work was already under way on its successor.
Scaled Composites' SpaceShipTwo, designed for "the new Sub-Orbital Personal Spaceflight Industry", would be larger and capable of carrying six fare-paying passengers in addition to its three crew members.
New Mexico, like Abu Dhabi now, was quick to spot the potential of space tourism, and in December 2005 the state signed a deal with Branson. It would finance the $200 million Spaceport America at Las Cruces, and Virgin Galactic would base its operations there.
Things moved quickly, if perhaps not quickly enough for impatient would-be space tourists. WhiteKnightTwo, the new and much larger mothership, was unveiled in July 2008 and renamed VMS Eve, in honour of Branson's mother. It flew for the first time five months later.
SpaceShipTwo, the world's first commercial manned spaceship and now renamed VSS Enterprise, was rolled out in December 2009, piggy-backing aloft with VMS Eve just three months later and finally air-launching at 13,700m in October 2010.
It has, however, yet to make the crucial last thrust into space. "We are right at the edge of that final part of the test-flight process," says Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic's commercial director, who says he is relaxed about the project's elastic timeframe. "Of course everybody would like it to happen as soon as possible but we're doing it the right way and we have achieved remarkable things in a fairly short period of time.
"We've always said in terms of the development of the spacecraft that this is really hard, that what we are trying to do is transform something that has pretty much stayed the same for 50 years. We need to get it right from day one … we won't start operating commercially until we are really sure we understand the risks and that it is as safe as it possibly can be."
Safety aside, what exactly will Virgin Galactic's would-be astronauts be getting for their money? In all, the sub-orbital flight will last two and a half hours. Taking off like a conventional aircraft from Las Cruces - or, in the future, from Abu Dhabi - the mother ship, VMS Eve, will air-launch the VSS Enterprise and her six passengers and two pilots at about 15.5km above the Earth.
At this point the hybrid rocket system will fire for about 70 seconds, unleashing "a wave of unimaginable but controlled power" and driving the spaceship to more than 4,000kph - about three times the speed of sound - in a matter of seconds.
When the spacecraft reaches an altitude of 110km - just 10 kilometres beyond the official start of space - the engine will be switched off, leaving the passengers free to celebrate their new status as astronauts by gazing back down at the blue globe they call home, by turning aerial cartwheels in zero gravity or, quite possibly, simply by throwing up.
After just five minutes of weightlessness, the Virgin Galactic pilots will "feather" the wings for a gentle re-entry - in effect turning the spaceship into a giant shuttlecock - and, once through the atmosphere, de-feather them for the long glide back to Earth.
Until now, the fledging industry of space tourism has been only for those who have had "the right stuff" - not the sheer guts of the early test pilots who paved the way for America's manned space programme, immortalised in Tom Wolfe's 1979 book, but vast amounts of spare cash.
When Dennis Tito, an American millionaire, became the first space tourist in 2001, he paid $20 million to hitch a ride to the ISS on board a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The deal was brokered by Space Adventures, which offers a range of experiences and is so far the only company actually to have put tourists in space.
Six others have followed Tito and, as inflation rises in Russia and a post-Shuttle Nasa is forced to rely on Soyuz to get to and from the ISS, so the price has gone up. Guy Laliberte, among the most recent customers, who spent 11 days in space in 2009, paid in excess of $30 million for the pleasure.
Space tourism, however, is far from being the final frontier, says Virgin Galactic's Attenborough: "It's a really important first step, but it is a first step and the business isn't just about space tourists."
Virgin Galactic, for one, also has its sights set on the growing and lucrative science and research market, which, Attenborough believes, "will be at least as big and vibrant as the space tourism market".
Nasa itself has already booked $4.5 million worth of flights to carry science payloads into space on SpaceShipTwo, "because it gives very high quality micro-gravity time, you can repeat the experimentation very quickly and at a fraction of the cost of anything else that's available at the moment".
Virgin Galactic is far from alone in the commercial space travel sector, the future of which appears to be in the hands not of rocket scientists, as one might expect, but a motley collection of enthusiastic, albeit vastly wealthy, amateur space geeks.
After all, Branson's Virgin brand began life as a record mail-order firm; Bigelow Aerospace, which is developing orbiting "space modules" designed to compete on cost with the ISS, is the creation of Robert Bigelow, who founded the hotel chain Budget Suites of America; Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) was founded in 2003 by Elon Musk, who made his fortune by selling the internet start-up PayPal to eBay in 2002 for US$1.5bn.
Meanwhile Rutan, the aero engineer behind SpaceShipOne, has teamed up again with Allen, the Microsoft billionaire, to develop an air-launch-to-orbit system designed for much bigger things than providing expensive day-trips for rich tourists. The Stratolaunch System, unveiled in December, "will bring airport-like operations to the launch of commercial and government payloads and, eventually, human missions".
All of this activity, says Attenborough, is a product of the simple paradigm that serves as Virgin Galactic's philosophy, which is that "governments are often good at starting technologies but generally to really reap the full benefits you need the private sector to come in and unlock it".
That, "as Richard likes to say", may lead to "orbital space hotels or, perhaps more interestingly, to the answer to rapid and environmentally friendly transcontinental travel. It's absolutely feasible theoretically at the moment, and to make that theory into reality the first thing you have to do is prove you can make money from taking people to space".
And taking people to space, it seems, makes them smile - even when the price is more than $20 million. As Greg Olsen, one of Space Adventure's seven space tourists, said after his October 2005 excursion to the International Space Station: "As all astronauts tell you, whatever you think now, once you get up there, it's better."
Updated: April 21, 2012 04:00 AM