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Friday, February 28, 2014, 09:09
Lost in space
By Simon Parry

Lost in space

“Future astronauts” gather at the Virgin Galactic Spaceport in New Mexico, US.

Lost in space

Winnie Chan with one of the “future astronauts” of Hong Kong

Lost in space

A Virgin Galactic presentation

A group of wealthy Hong Kong adventurers expect to be the first Chinese space tourists after signing up for $250,000 trips on board a Virgin Galactic spacecraft. But will the pioneering flights take off on schedule? Simon Parry reports.

They are rich, they are daring, and they are ready to make history. In a few months’ time, a dozen or so wealthy Hong Kong adventurers expect to strap themselves into their seats in a space base in New Mexico in the US and sit back ready for the journey of a lifetime.

Each of them has committed to pay up to $250,000 to be among the first Chinese space tourists when they climb aboard some of the first commercial flights into orbit on the high-profile spacecraft operated by Virgin Galactic.

How soon they go into space and which flight they catch depends on how early they were to put down their deposits. But whether they’re among the first dozen or the first 500 to go into orbit, the experience promises to be just as thrilling.

Travelling six at a time, a mothership will carry them on board a spaceship to an altitude of 15 km above the earth before the craft breaks free and is propelled by rocket at supersonic speed into space.

After an exhilarating 90-second rocket burst travelling at 3.5 times the speed of sound, the motor will shut down and space tourists will unfasten their seatbelts to enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness as they gaze down at the earth from a height of 110 km.

Blast-off date uncertain

Then, they will strap themselves into their seats in lying position as their bodies are exposed to G-forces while the spacecraft re-enters the atmosphere and then glides for 40 minutes back down to earth.

The whole journey from leaving earth to returning will last 2.5 hours, with just four minutes of weightlessness included — but already 700 people worldwide have booked seats and some have already been waiting for years to boldly go where no tourist has gone before.

Virgin Galactic is currently the frontrunner to offer the first commercial space flights if it lives up to its latest promise and begins operations this autumn.

But frustratingly for the paid-up passengers from Hong Kong and elsewhere, a precise date for the first flight has yet to be announced and serious questions are now being raised over whether the project will even be ready for blast-off at all this year.

Virgin Galactic owner Sir Richard Branson has been insisting since 2007 that the first flight is imminent and in his latest prediction promised they would begin in autumn 2014 with himself and his grown-up children on board the inaugural flight.

However, investigative journalist Tom Bower, author of a new biography of the British tycoon, points out that test pilots have so far completed only three test flights with a peak height of less than a quarter of the required altitude.

To get the US Federal Aviation Administration license it needs to begin commercial flights, the craft will need several tests at its full speed and altitude, Bower argues, saying it is extremely unlikely commercial flights can begin this year.

As the uncertainty continues, all the  Hong Kong passengers who have paid deposits for their seats can do is wait, occasionally meeting up to discuss the out-of-this-world adventure that awaits them in what must count as Asia’s most exclusive dining club.

“I keep in very close contact with them all and they have become my good friends,” said Winnie Chan, who works for Miramar Travel and is Virgin Galactic’s appointed Space Agent for Hong Kong. She optimistically calls her customers “Future Astronauts”.

Fulfilling dreams

“We have gatherings for our ‘future astronauts’ from time to time to share dinner together and to keep them mingling and networking. They all know each other now and it is very exciting when they get together.

“I remember the first time I got them all together. There were only four or five of them and they were so excited they just kept on talking and talking. It went on for three hours and I felt as if they’d never stop.”

Aged from their early 40s upwards, most of the “future astronauts” from Hong Kong are business owners. “Some of them have helicopter or fixed wing licences,” said Chan. “One of our clients loves aircraft and has been to Moscow to fly a MiG 29 fighter jet.

“For some of them, their childhood dream was to be an astronaut so this is pretty close to fulfilling their dreams. Some of them have travelled all over the world but want to see what it’s like to step out from the earth and explore the wonderland beyond.”

What bonds them is wealth and a sense of adventure. “People might think it is very expensive,” said Chan, referring to the price of the flight which jumped from $200,000 to $250,000 a head last June.

“But from our Future Astronauts’ point of view, it is small money when you consider the investment of space exploration. There has been huge investment in this and they know that they will be part of history. So they do not think the cost is so great.”

Among the first “future astronauts” from the region to go into space will be Perveen Crawford, Hong Kong’s first licensed female pilot who signed up early after being persuaded in person by Virgin Galactic’s founder Sir Richard Branson more than eight years ago.

Virgin Galactic is not the only option for an out-of-this-world flying experience, however, and further lengthy delays could potentially see it lose out in the space race to a less-heralded competitor.

For a relatively modest $95,000, US-based XCOR Aerospace is offering seats on board its shuttle-style Lynx rocket-plane which will fly to an altitude of 65 km above the earth — with just the pilot and one passenger on board each flight from the company’s base at the Mojave Spaceport in California.

Around 250 seats have already been sold on the flights on which the passenger will sit in a right hand seat in the cockpit next to the pilot with no other space tourists to worry about. The ticket price includes pre-flight training with fellow space travellers.

XCOR Aerospace founder and CEO Jeff Greason said in one interview that the first prototype spaceship should go into testing in 2014 and that the process could take up to a year depending on “the problems we encounter over many dozens of test flights”.

Back down on earth, Chan at Miramar Travel says she has already had her view of the world changed by her time as a Space Agent which has included two trips to the grandly named Spaceport America in New Mexico where Virgin Galactic flights will take off from.

“When we saw the Spaceport, it was stunning,” she said. “We met with the Virgin Galactic team including their technicians, medical doctors, their spacesuit designer and their test pilot. We were able to walk on the balcony of the terminal and watch the sun set.

“The view was so amazing. It was 100 percent different to Hong Kong. When you go somewhere you can see all the stars in the sky, the view is just so much more exciting.” And that’s without leaving the ground.

Whether space tourism will become a reality this year or remain in the realms of science fiction remains a mystery. Virgin Galactic spokesperson Stephen Attenborough confirmed there was still no fixed date for blast-off, explaining: “As always, exact timing will be led by safety considerations.

“However, we have now undertaken multiple test flights and with the most recent three supersonic powered flights, most of the technical risk is out of the program. We are gearing up for the start of commercial operations in the second half of this year.”

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