Space will be the final frontier for tourists if Sir Richard Branson has his way.
Getting there won't be easy on the wallet—but it won't be so hard on the planet, either, contends the British adventurer and Virgin Group founder, who touched down at Washington's National Press Club recently.
"Very environmentally friendly," Branson said. "The [carbon] cost of us putting someone into space will be less than flying to London and back on a commercial plane."
Five years and $150 million into his Virgin Galactic venture, Branson has a bona fide spaceship to show for it.
Over the past few months, pilots have conducted several test flights of the space-launch vehicle Eve. The mother ship—named after the billionaire's mum—is designed to ferry SpaceShipTwo and its two pilots and six astronauts more than 50,000 feet above the Earth's surface.
From the stratosphere, SpaceShipTwo would blast to a suborbital altitude of about 360,000 feet using hybrid rockets.
A "whole new era of space travel" may be nigh, boasted Branson, who plans to go boldly where just a few tourists have gone before. SpaceShipTwo is slated for completion by the end of the year, he said, followed by about 18 months of testing.
Scientists James Lovelock and Stephen Hawking are among 300 passengers queued up to ride in Branson's spacecraft. Contrary to rumors, "Star Trek" alumnus William Shatner is not among them, Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn said in an interview.
A ticket to ride is $200,000—perhaps chump change for Branson but a king's ransom for the rest of us. It is the "trip of a lifetime," Virgin Galactic's online portal promises.
"Reserve your place in space now and look forward to three days of training in preparation with your crew," the sales pitch continues. "Traveling at over three times the speed of sound to a distance of around 360,000 feet above the Earth's surface, experience weightlessness and enjoy the breathtaking view."
Shortly before SpaceShipTwo reaches the apogee of its flight path, the vessel would fold its wings for re-entry through the upper atmosphere. The ship's wings would flatten out once more at 60,000 feet in order to glide back to terra firma.
Eye on emissions, fuel savings
Virgin Galactic uses a landing strip in California's Mojave Desert now, but construction crews plan to break ground next month on a state-of-the-art "spaceport" near Truth or Consequences, N.M.
"Spaceport America," a $198 million project funded by the state, will feature a vertical launch pad and a horizontal runway, according to project officials. Virgin Galactic's fellow tenants will include UP Aerospace Inc. and Lockheed Martin Corp.
The project's terminal and hangar facility, designed by URS Corp. and Foster + Partners, will feature solar-thermal panels. A passive cooling system will draw in hot air from the outside and chill it through a series of concrete tubes.
Virgin Galactic's spacecraft were also designed with environmental sustainability in mind, Whitehorn said.
Mother ship Eve's jet engines will run on kerosene initially but are also capable of running on butanol, a biofuel that can be made from algae. SpaceShipTwo's rockets will burn nitrous oxide —but only briefly—as the spaceship would require no fuel for takeoff, reentry and landing.
According to Whitehorn's calculations,
carbon dioxide emissions per passenger on a Virgin Galactic spaceflight would be about 60 percent of a passenger's carbon footprint on a round-trip flight between New York and London. About 70 percent of a spaceflight's CO2 emissions would come from mother ship Eve, which must carry SpaceShipTwo into the stratosphere.