Video: Adventurers pay big bucks for space tour

updated 10/23/2012 2:37:43 PM ET 2012-10-23T18:37:43

While SpaceShipTwo builder Scaled Composites prepares the commercial spaceship for its first rocket-powered test flight, owner Virgin Galactic has been thinking about all the armchair astronauts lining up to finally test their space legs.

Virgin's spacefliers won't go far — just 65 miles or so above the southern New Mexico launch site — and they won't be gone long. The supersonic sprint beyond the atmosphere will last only a few minutes.

But Virgin Galactic is betting that the ride, albeit short, will be sweet enough to warrant its $200,000 fare. As of last week, 545 people had put down deposits or paid the full fee to find out for themselves.

PHOTOS: Introducing SpaceShipTwo

So what will the experience be like? Here's a perspective from SpaceShipTwo lead pilot David Mackay.

After a three-day training program, passengers will leave Virgin's terminal at the newly built Spaceport America, located near Las Cruces, N.M., and climb aboard SpaceShipTwo, which they'll find hanging beneath the twin-boomed White Knight carrier aircraft. The six-passenger, two-pilot vehicle is based on the prize-winning SpaceShipOne prototype, which now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

Unlike the rocket ride to space, which will come after SpaceShipTwo is released, White Knight's flight up to about 50,000 feet will be long and slow.

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"It's a low-key part of the experience, but I think it will be quite interesting," Mackay said at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight last week.

"It's probably a little bit like a roller coaster ride, where you're all excited just to strap in and then you have this long, steep climb, up to that initial drop. Some people love that sort of thing. Others perhaps get a little bit nervous. We have to think about that — how to make everyone relaxed and keep them calm during that part of the flight," he said.

Upon reaching the launch altitude, there will be short countdown while the pilots and flight controllers run through a checklist before SpaceShipTwo is released.

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"When you're dropped from underneath White Knight, you do feel briefly like you're falling. That's quite a nice feeling," Mackay said. "Very soon after, we light the rocket motor, and it all starts to get really damn exciting."

Passengers will feel about 3.5 times the force of Earth's gravity for just over a minute, and another push to between 3 and 3.5 G's when the pilots turn the spaceship from horizontal to vertical.

"It's quite an abrupt turn," Mackay said.

The rocket engine will be shut down at about 150,000 feet, close to the edge of the atmosphere. SpaceShipTwo will keep climbing until it reaches about 350,000 feet or so.

"By the time we're passing 200,000 feet, there's virtually no measurable aerodynamic loads on the vehicle. At that point we're going to allow the passengers to unstrap and experience this fantastic sensation of zero-G and float to the windows," Mackay said.

INTERVIEW: Virgin Founder Talks SpaceShipTwo

Pilots will probably flip the ship over so passengers have a view of the Earth from the roof-top windows. "The best view is probably of the Earth rushing away from you, which is quite exciting," Mackay said.

The apex of the ride will be between 62 miles and 68 miles above the planet, and then it's all downhill.

"Before we meet the atmosphere, we orient the vehicle back around to the entry position. It's got this very clever, unique ‘feather' system, which will ensure that we always enter the atmosphere in the optimal attitude. It's a very, very stable attitude, a hands-free task for the pilots," Mackay said.

Gravity forces will build back slowly at first and then accelerate, peaking at about 5.5 to 6 G's and then drop off. For the ride home, passengers' seats will recline, which should make the forces easier to handle.

Surprisingly, the flight back to Earth is expected to be just as noisy as the rocket ride up, as air blasts the bottom of the vehicle during its supersonic descent through the atmosphere.

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SpaceShipTwo will decrease in speed and go subsonsonic (slower than the speed of sound) by about 70,000 feet. The spaceship's tail section, positioned forward for re-entry, will be moved back for the glide back to the runway.

For now, Virgin Galactic isn't planning to put its passengers in pressurized flight suits.

"It's a complication to the experience," Mackay said. "A lot of people actually find them quite claustrophobic, and they tend to get very warm. We think our system is both sufficient in redundancy and safety."

That's not to say passengers will fly in shorts and T-shirts.

"Our customers will probably wear some from of coverall — no doubt it'll be very trendy and very Virgin — and possibly some type of protective headgear," Mackay said.

"They'll look the part," he added. "I think a lot of people actually do want to look like an astronaut when they go into space."

SpaceShipTwo's powered test flights are expected to begin before the end of the year. Spaceport America is preparing for the spaceship's first commercial flight in December 2013.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Photos: The making of SpaceShipTwo

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  1. Birds of a feather...

    SpaceShipTwo in full feather wing mode on a rapid descent from its drop altitude of 51,500 feet over Mojave,Calif., on Wednesday May 4, 2011. The feathered wing is at its full 65 degree angle and remained at this angle for 1 minute and 15 seconds. The craft descended in this configuration at a near vertical angle at a rate of 15,500 feet per minute. The craft was reconfigured to normal glide mode at 33,500 feet. All objectives of the flight were met. The flight duration of SpaceShipTwo following release was approximatel 11 minutes and 5 seconds. This photograph was taken with high powered telescopes from the ground. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Golden Gate ... to space?

    A new Virgin America A320 jet, aptly named "My Other Ride Is a Spaceship," flies in tandem with the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and its mothership over the Golden Gate Bridge on April 6. The aircraft landed at San Francisco International Airport, becoming the first planes to arrive at the new $388 million, 640,000-square-foot Terminal 2. SpaceShipTwo is expected to begin rocket-powered suborbital test flights sometime in the next year - not from San Francisco, but from the Mojave Air and Space Port near Los Angeles. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin America) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ready for testing

    Onlookers inspect the back end of the mated WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo planes at the Mojave Air and Space Port during the rocket plane's Dec. 7 unveiling. The eight-person SpaceShipTwo, which was christened the VSS Enterprise, is the first of a series of space planes due to start commercial service in the 2011-2012 time frame. Tests of the rocket plane were to begin within days of the unveiling. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Spaceship's debut

    Illuminated by colored lights, the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is attached to its WhiteKnightTwo mothership during its rollout on Dec. 7 at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. (Anrew Gombert / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Welcome aboard

    Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson prepares for flight inside the mothership Eve's cockpit at the EAA AirVenture air show in Wisconsin on July 27, 2009. The airplane's pilot, Pete Siebold, and Scaled Composites engineer Bob Morgan help with the preparations. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. First step to space

    The WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane known as Eve flies over mountains during a test flight from its home base at California's Mojave Air and Space Port. Eve is to serve as the mothership for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane. SpaceShipTwo's test flights are due to begin in 2010. (Robert Scherer) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Riding the wave

    Virgin Group employees sit in the cabin of a prototype Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo spacecraft at London's Science Museum in February 2007. SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots to the edge of outer space for a few minutes of weightlessness and an out-of-this-world view. The fare is $200,000 per passenger. (Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A ride for the boss

    Virgin Galactic's billionaire founder, Richard Branson, flashes a grin as he stands in front on VMS Eve, the WhiteKnightTwo airplane that will eventually carry SpaceShipTwo to its air launch. Branson took his first flight on Eve in July 2009 at the EAA AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, Wis. The plane is named after Branson's mother, who inspired the painting on the fuselage. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Window seats

    Windows dot the interior of the SpaceShipTwo passenger cabin, as seen during an early stage of the rocket plane's construction. The design is aimed at making sure each of the six passengers has a view of the curving Earth and the black sky of space from a height of 62 miles (100 kilometers). (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Fire away!

    The full-scale rocket motor to be used in SpaceShipTwo is successfully test-fired on May 6, 2009, at the Northrop Grumman test facility in San Clemente, Calif. The hybrid rocket motor was built by Scaled Composites and SpaceDev. (Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The making of SpaceShipTwo

    Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is the result of a years-long development effort, following up on the successful suborbital spaceflights of SpaceShipOne in 2004. In this photo, SpaceShipTwo's passenger cabin is being placed on the fuselage inside Scaled Composites' hangar in Mojave, Calif. (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
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