Ireland has attracted many innovations with futuristic ambitions to the country, but none so advanced, yet near to actuality as Richard Branson’s “Virgin Galactic” project. To date, Branson has seen €280 million go in to finalising his “space-tourism” scheme, which could send up its first passengers as early as 2010.
Branson, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, have both been heavily involved in the project from its conception. He aims to be able to give “ordinary” (that is, currently, normal but very wealthy) people a space adventure experience. The flights will include two pilots and six passengers, and if business is brisk, Stephen Attenborough, commercial Director of “Virgin Galactic”, asserts that losses will be recouped inside 3 years.
Despite being relatively short, considering the price of a ticket, and the distances covered, passengers can hope to experience a full five minutes of weightlessness. Virgin’s revolutionary Space Ship “SpaceCraftTwo” is the first craft to be designed specifically around comfort, safety and the enjoyment of the passenger. Tickets will currently set you back €140,000, a bargain compared to the €160,000 paid by Virgin’s 100 “pioneer” passengers, among whom three prominent Irish businessmen.
A specially designed aircraft piggy-backs the rocket powered SpaceShipTwo up to about 15km before its engine kicks in and boosts the tourists to between 100-140km above the Earth’s surface. The crew will experience speeds upwards of 4000km/h, more than three times the speed of sound, in their suborbital adventure. The flights are currently scheduled to take off from the Mojave Desert (from an aerospace centre founded by Allen), California, and passengers will have to undergo a three day centrifuge training program at the spaceport, as well as passing a safety course and a medical.
Bill Cullen, along with Tom Higgins and PJ King, is one of the first Irishmen to have signed up. He appeared alongside Attenborough in Trinity this week to describe why he bought his ticket, “I can see myself up there with my camcorder saying ‘wow, it is worth every penny.’” Cullen cryptically remarked before the meeting that “My main focus is to raise between €2 million and €5 million for the Irish Youth Foundation,” but asserts that how he is going to do this will remain a secret until he takes off.
A spokesperson for Virgin Galactic described the experience as “intense, wonderful and truly unforgettable,” sentiments echoed by Mr Attenborough in a presentation made to Trinity’s science gallery this week. Virgin are marketing this experience as more than an extravagant, if brief, holiday for the excessively wealthy, but as a journey of self-discovery, identifying the program as having “enormous potential significance to the future of the human race”.
It seems that space is the last place for the multi-billionaire to conquer. Branson, who has ballooned across the Atlantic, floated down the Thames with the Sex Pistols, appeared in a James Bond movie, has been knighted, and whose megabrand Virgin is home to more than 250 companies including aircraft, trains, gyms and limousines, holds aspirations far beyond mere space travel. He said of his latest venture that “if it is a success, we want to move into orbital flights, and even get a hotel up there.” This comes at the same time as Branson has unveiled plans for a new flight path from LA to Australia that will travel outside the Earth’s atmosphere and subsequently take only 30 minutes, saying Virgin wanted to “pop people up into space from LA.”
Richard Branson commented, “The deal with Mojave Aerospace Ventures is just the start of what we believe will be a new era in the history of mankind, one day making the affordable exploration of space possible by human beings.”
Aside from the ultimately insignificant cost to businessmen like Bill Cullen’s bank accounts, the environmental costs that of this programme will be extravagent. Commercial flying, as it stands, is one of the world’s most prolific polluters. This venture, which reduces flying to merely the act itself without a destination, will only contribute negatively to the Global Warming issue.
Branson, predicting this argument, has proposed to donate the next three years profit from his Virgin empire, which is estimated to be roughly $3 billion, to the development of renewable alternatives to carbon fuels. His prize, “Virgin’s Earth Challenge” which offers $25 million dollars to the person or institution that produces an economically viable solution to the greenhouse gas problem still stands, so for students like me worrying about Christmas just around the corner, the answer is simple: solve Global Warming. Let’s get studying.