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Your seat in space

In space, no one can serve you coffee.

That's just one of the amenities you'll have to do without during a suborbital rocket plane ride. But when you're paying somewhere around $200,000 to zoom to the edge of space, to see the black sky and curving Earth and get that feeling of weightlessness, it's all about safety and the spectacle. Mundane amenities such as beverage service and in-flight restrooms will go by the wayside.

Today's unveiling of the mock-up for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane served to focus attention on the consumer experience of spaceflight. It's all very well for NASA's accommodations on the international space station to look like an electronics lab, but with more than a half-dozen companies potentially vying for tourist dollars, customer service and customer confidence will likely be key.

"The details are going to be what ultimately discriminates one space tourism provider from another," Chuck Lauer, director of business development for Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Kistler, told me. "We don't really know the answers yet, but we know what questions we want to ask."

Lauer said a lot of the details surrounding the interior cabin design for his company's Rocketplane XL suborbital spaceship will be decided by customers and focus groups during the run-up to the start of service. The craft will be a converted Learjet, but Lauer emphasized that the interior will be "completely different" from the cabin of a small passenger plane.

Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson flashes thumbs-up

signs as he reclines in the SpaceShipTwo mock-up.

Rocketplane Kistler and Virgin Galactic are both planning to start test flights by 2008 and start commercial service by 2009. It's interesting to compare the preliminary design details for the two companies' rocket planes:

How many will go: SpaceShipTwo is built to accommodate two pilots in front and six passengers in the main cabin, separated by a bulkhead. Rocketplane XL will have one pilot, one passenger riding in the "co-pilot" seat (and paying a premium for the privilege) and two more passengers in the back seats. (By the way, XCOR Aerospace is planning an even more intimate experience for its Xerus rocket plane: It'll be just you and the pilot.) 

What you'll wear: SpaceShipTwo will provide personal spacesuits of a design yet to be set, equipped with data/video recorders. Rocketplane will offer a catalog of fire-resistant fashions, ranging from retro flight suits to "designer spacewear." (Lauer says the finals of a space fashion contest is scheduled for Nov. 2 in Japan.) 

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo artwork shows fliers wearing helmets, while Rocketplane riders would wear lightweight headsets with noise-canceling earphones. "No helmet, no breathing mask," Lauer said. Of course, you'll have oxygen-equipped headgear within reach just in case there's an emergency.

What you'll do, and not do: When SpaceShipTwo nears the top of its rise, you'll be able to unhook yourself, leave your swoopy reclining seat and float around for a few minutes of weightlessness. At one time, Virgin Galactic planned to keep passengers tethered to their seats - but that idea has apparently been discarded. You'll have about 40 seconds' warning to get back in your seat and recline fully for the descent - otherwise you'll have to ride out accelerations of up to 7 G's (analogous to a rough Soyuz re-entry) on the floor.

Virgin Galactic
During the zero-G portion of a SpaceShipTwo flight,

passengers will be able to float around the cabin.

Rocketplane's passengers might be able to hover more loosely in their safety harnesses, but there'll be no getting out of the racing-style seats to wander around. "Our primary concern is safety, and we don't want to be in a position where the passengers are in any personal risk," Lauer explained. "If you want to do the loops and spins, the best place to do that - outside of what Anousheh Ansari has been doing - is in a zero-gravity plane, either here or in Russia."

On both of the rocket planes, you'd be able to do tricks such as juggling weightless candies. But don't even think about squirting water around the Rocketplane cabin to watch it form into little floating globes. "When the gravity comes back, the blobs of water just fall on the floor and get absorbed," Lauer said. That could wreak havoc with the avionics, he said.

The no-squirting rule will apply on SpaceShipTwo as well. In fact, you won't be able to take liquids on board, although water will be available for sipping through a tube if you need it.

And as for restrooms: Go before you go. "C'mon ... it's a one-hour flight," Lauer said. Virgin Galactic had similar advice about its 2.5-hour SpaceShipTwo flight.

What you'll see: The feedback from would-be fliers has been that "the overall nature of the experience is primarily about the view, and feeling the forces," Lauer said. Thus, both companies are trying to optimize the view of a curving Earth, spread out beneath the black sky of space. But they're doing it using different methods.

SpaceShipTwo will offer as many portholes as it can, placed strategically around the side walls of the passenger cabin. Rocketplane, in contrast, plans to make the most of the forward view. "The best views are really out the front window, just as they are with any airplane. ... When you're in the back seats, it's surprising how much of the forward view you do get," Lauer said.

Back-seat passengers will each get two of their own windows as well, currently planned for placement at shoulder height and above their heads, he said.

The SpaceShipTwo concept gives you dials to watch, showing G-forces, altitude and other statistics, plus a larger cabin display. Rocketplane promises to provide a customizable video display for each passenger. And both spacecraft will be fairly bristling with video cameras to record the highlights of your out-of-this-world flight.

What else? Virgin Galactic and Rocketplane Kistler both frame their flights as the climax of a space-themed experience that lasts for days. SpaceShipTwo fliers will have a chance to ride the rocket plane's mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, as a warmup for the main event.

The training for the flights should be memorable: Lauer compares it to a "weeklong space camp with the spaceflight at the end." There'll be virtual-reality mission simulations, rehearsals for evacuations and even practice sessions in a hypobaric altitude chamber.

"That sort of stuff will stick with you forever," Lauer said. As if flying to the edge of space wasn't enough.