It's not the most colorful place on the planet, but that's only because it isn't on the planet.
Space tourism is going to happen. In fact, it's happening as we speak -- and far be it from me not to jump on this bandwagon. But contrary to popular grumblings, it is not the providence of NASA to get private citizens into orbit (it'd be nice, of course, but NASA is ultimately a science-driven organization). No sort of legal prohibition exists to keep astro-tourists on the ground; rather it is the cost and the lack of necessary infrastructure -- the launch/landing sites, and most importantly, the vehicles themselves -- that snarls up the plans of many a Starfleet wannabe. In somewhat-belated honor of Sally Ride, quite possibly the first lesbian in space, here are what really are the very first steps into the Final Frontier.
Don't let the name fool you; Virgin has a lot more experience than you think, particularly when it comes to space travel. Richard Branson registered Virgin Galactic all the way back in 1990, and has been making serious strides since, namely in the form of two working space plane prototypes, dubbed SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo, that, instead of launching straight up like the Space Shuttle, will ascend like a jet to a sub-orbital cruising altitude of around 68 miles up for a two-and-a-half hour experience. For five of those minutes, micro-gravity kicks in.
Structural testing is still underway, but virgingalactic.com proudly states 450 reservations already are registered. At a whopping $200,000 a pop (which includes a three-day pre-flight training session for G-forces that will be three times great than Earth's gravity, etc.), it's safe to say that in the short run, there will not be much in the way of crowds waiting at the local spaceport. Still, it's a steal compared to the over $51 million Phantom of the Opera singer Sarah Brightman paid the cash-strapped Russian Space Agency last year for a 2014-15 jaunt to the International Space Station via Space Adventures, currently the go-to guys for infinity and beyond.
And we all may be hearing a lot more about Branson and Virgin Galactic: In 2012, Engadget.com reported that the first passenger flight of the 60-foot-long SpaceShipTwo will take to the skies this year. Branson himself, and two of his starry-eyed children, will be on board.
So what will one see? At 68 miles, one is just beyond the Kármán line, where most experts agree the atmosphere "ends." The curvature of the Earth will clearly be seen, as will the thin blue envelope of the atmosphere. Passengers will see weather systems on a grand scale, and a view of North America usually seen only on classroom globes.
Although the word "spaceport" is still novel, the concept is nothing new -- humanity has been launching things into space since Russia sent up Sputnik back in 1957, along with the facilities to do the launching. But a compound devoted exclusively to commercial space flight? That is new. And it is 45 miles north of Las Cruces, New Mexico.
It is right out of The Jetsons, but for good reason. While it may look like a regional airport in the middle of nowhere, Spaceport America is the up-and-running nerve center of commercial spaceflight. This is no pie-in-the-sky folly project; with the official blessings of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (yes, it exists) and the Federal Aviation Authority's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (yes, it exists, too), if you are a private citizen gunning for the stars, this is the place to be.
To walk around the grounds, one would not immediately pick up on the starry aspirations of the facility. The 15,000-foot runway, passenger terminal, and command center are all familiar sights, but the vertical launch pads are not.
When I say that commercial space flight is taking its first steps, I mean it. Spaceport America has yet to see its inaugural flight, but it is ground zero for every test designers can think of. Before any person goes up, dozens of test flights must be done, and never all at once. This test may be of a wing design; that test registers the thrust of an engine that is itself experimental. As thrilling as astrotravel is, this is uncharted territory: Space Shuttles and rockets are huge and heavy, a commercial spacecraft is light and lilliputian by comparison -- Virgin Galactic, which will use Spaceport America as its hub, plans on a modest six-person passenger load with each flight. Combined, this creates a whole new set of stresses to compensate for and safety criteria to meet.
But if it means getting that much closer to the stars and the playground of the gods beyond? Count me in.