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News for Southeastern Arizona, provided by the University of Arizona School of Journalism

Rocketing to space comes with a hefty price tag

The first SpaceShipTwo during a glide flight over the Mojave desert. (Photo by: Virgin Galactic)

The first SpaceShipTwo during a glide flight over the Mojave desert. (Photo by: Virgin Galactic)

Booking beachfront villas on the Amalfi Coast and vacationing on private yachts for the 1 percent will soon be replaced by trips that rocket outside of Earth’s atmosphere as innovations in space tourism continue to flourish in Tucson and around the United States.

Commercial space travel may become a realistic goal as early as 2017, according to the Tucson based company World View. And these trips do not come cheap. For $75,000 people can reserve their spot on a World View commercial launch vehicle and add to the soon to be growing number of people who have been to outer space.

Around 20 commercial space companies in the United States are working to someday provide suborbital flights to space tourists. Although they vary on their methods from high-altitude balloons to small rockets, they all share one commonality: the hefty price that goes along with venturing into space. Although World View claims that their voyages will begin in just two years, many argue that this is an unachievable goal.

World View was founded in 2013, making it one of the newer commercial space companies in the United States. And although the company has not taken a major test flight since June 2014 it is not having any trouble selling seats for future voyages.

World View’s commercial balloon spaceflight experience lasts between five to six hours, with passengers floating 100,000 feet above Earth. In addition to the view only a select number of people have been able to behold, passengers will even have access to an in-flight bar, lavatory and wireless Internet. And World View’s space experience is just the beginning in regards to price and type of experience.

“If money weren’t a factor, I would go on all of them once they have adequately completed their testing and proven the relative safety of their vehicles,” said Conor Duggan, commercial space industry professional. “Virgin Galactic’s roller coaster ride sounds insanely thrilling, but I also wouldn’t mind being served cocktails on one of World View’s more relaxing balloon treks.”

Virgin Galactic, the leading commercial space company, predicts it will be another 20 years until successful space tourism is achieved. Virgin Galactic’s space plan focuses on getting its rockets, SpaceShipTwo and LauncherOne into commercial service.

In order to become a Virgin Galactic Future Astronaut it costs an up front deposit of $250,000, in addition to completion of an application that asks questions like, “What are your motivations to go to space?” and “What do you hope to bring to the community?” And even though just a reservation for spot on a Virgin Galactic trip costs upwards of six figures, there are currently 700 Future Astronauts in the Virgin Galactic program. Members of the Virgin Galactic Future Astronaut community come from more than 50 nations around the world, and range in age from 10 to 90 years old.

“Only a little over 500 people have been to space,” said Michelle Mendiola, Virgin corporate communications associate. “Richard Branson [Virgin Galactic Founder] had a goal of opening up space to the rest of the world, more than making space accessible, the research brought about by space travel could revolutionize life on Earth.”

Virgin Galactic’s space voyage will begin at dawn where a crew of  astronauts who will take the spaceship WhiteKnightTwo to an altitude of approximately 50,000 feet before beginning the second stage of flight, where SpaceShipTwo is released from WhiteKnightTwo. Within seconds SpaceShipTwo will accelerate to approximately three and a half times the speed of sound. After the rocket’s thrilling ride comes to an end passengers will experience dramatic silence, the weightlessness of space and the best possible views Earth.

For Chris Impey, author and deputy head of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Arizona, the future of space travel has been an important topic of focus for some time. Impey recently published his sixth popular science book, “Beyond: Our Future in Space.” In the novel Impey looks to the future where in 20 years we will see a vibrant commercial space industry, followed by small colonies on the Moon and Mars in 30 years, advanced mining technology able to harvest resources from asteroids in 50 years and in 100 years a cohort of humans born off Earth who will come of age without ever visiting humanity’s home planet.

“The private space industry, the entrepreneurial side has really started to become pretty active,” said Impey, “It really seems like we’ve started to turn that corner.”

But there are still a number of dangers and concerns surrounding space travel that the commercial space industry must overcome. In October 2014, Virgin Galactic experienced a fatal crash during a test flight. The cause of the flight was pinned to pilot error. SpaceX, another prominent aerospace company, lost a rocket in April 2015 when it exploded about two minutes after takeoff.

“Each of the three most prominent private space enterprises have had a disaster within the last 18 months,” said Impey, “That’s just a sign that it is hard, but none of these people are discouraged it just means they are going to persevere.”

Even with the recent crashes and uncertainties government regulations on the commercial space industry remain limited since the industry is still in its early stages. Members from the House and the Senate both support extending the learning period for the industry in order to allow for optimal growth.

The date whn space tourism will become a reality is as unpredictable as space itself. And as the race to space continues within the private sector, the anticipation will only continue to build for those who dream of blasting off into outer space.

Morrena Villanueva is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at morrenav@email.arizona.edu.

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos. 

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