Branson’s ‘Virgin Galactic’ prepares for launch

As reported Thursday night on Variety, National Geographic Channel will premiere “Virgin Galactic,” a four-part series documenting the efforts of Virgin founder Richard Branson and his chief engineer Burt Rutan to launch a passenger space travel company. And to be clear – these folks expect to succeed.

“I believe strongly: Yes, it’s going to happen,” Rutan said on the show’s Television Critics Assn. panel today.

More than 300 people have anted up $200,000 each to reserve a seat on the SpaceShipTwo, which is well into development (and whose first test flight will be shown in part one of “Virgin Galactic”). At the outset, the plan is for the journey to go 10 times higher than a airline flight and half the altitude of a space station flight.

“It’s about an hour or maybe longer, depending on if you want to go as an operator, show some interesting scenery and different spots around your launch site,” said Matthew W. Stinemetze, project manager for Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites. “You go up in the spaceship at about 15,000 feet, lights and rocket motor. Points uphill, you get about seven minutes of dark sky and about four minutes of weightlessness … (followed by) a 15-minute-or-so glide back to your home base.

“The experience, which is what this is really all about – what you’re gonna see, what you’re gonna feel – is unlike anything in the world. This isn’t about ‘Ladies and gentlemen, prepare your tray tables and seatbacks for takeoff.’ This is 3-2-1 launch – face squished back, planted in the seat, lots of noise, lots of acceleration.

“And then the motor shuts off, and it’s an experience that nobody in space has ever felt before, where it’s completely quiet. There’s no G. It’s a religious, personal experience. You follow that with a lot more noise, a lot more G and the entry back into the atmosphere. And in the middle there, you’ve got the biggest windows you ever seen to see the earth below you, like nothing but 400 people have seen in the past 45 years. So I think it’s going to be a world-changing event to put people up over and over again.”

Rutan said the thrill will be greater than what conventional astronauts (if that phrase isn’t an oxymoron) enjoy.

“The space shuttle only goes to 2 gs on launch,” Rutan noted. “The space shuttle takes 20-30 min to decelerate. We decelerate in less than a minute and a half, so you run a higher g-level.

“In other words, in terms of the excitement and the thrill and the view and the immersion in something really significant, this is going to be the very best experience ever in any manned space flight.”

SpaceShipTwo is also not being designed to accommodate only the fittest.

“I’m going to be going with my children,” Branson said, “and with my parents. My father’s 92, and so he’s whipping Burt to hurry up and get on with the program. I promised him that before he turns 95 he’s going to be into space.”

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