Mojave is a boneyard, a place where commercial airliners go to die. Yet on the day I visited last October, there was life in the wide blue sky overhead, and it was more striking than the sight of even the most modern airliner. I saw a kind of flying catamaran streaking from west to east. As it came into view, it looked like two business jets flying in formation and high-fiving each other. Closer, I saw twin fuselages joined by large, slightly tilted overhead wings, each with two quiet jet engines on the far side. I was watching the VMS Eve, the airborne launching pad for the smaller rocket ships that in the next few years, Virgin Galactic says, will begin taking paying passengers to space.
Soaring above the elderly airliners, their liveries fading away under the baking sun, Eve, named for Virgin founder Richard Branson’s mother, was the only obvious sign of a spaceport at the airfield. Passengers may one day fly out of Mojave and other spaceports, with sleek underground terminals and gleaming rocket ships taxiing for blastoff. But for the moment, to really see what the future has in store for this quiet patch of desert, you need to pass through a locked door in a chain-link fence and into a large hangar, where you’ll find the heart of Scaled Composites, the aerospace company behind Eve and the rest of Virgin Galactic’s futuristic spaceware. Technicians in smocks and white lab coats swarmed around a spacecraft like bees at a honeycomb. Working with riveters, glue guns, sanders and vacuum pumps, they were busy putting the outer layers on a prototype of SpaceShipTwo, the 60-foot-long, feather-winged vehicle Virgin was preparing to unveil in December. The craft is part of its grand plan to bring space travel, if not to the masses, then to a slightly broader swath of humanity than has ever been able to contemplate it before.
Jim Tighe, an aerodynamicist and chief project engineer of SpaceShipTwo, advised me to step carefully as he offered a tour of the ship’s six-person cabin. When the ship reaches space, Tighe explained, passengers will be able to float around and look out the windows at the curvature of the Earth. Scaled founder Burt Rutan made history in 2004 when pilot Brian Binnie flew his original prototype, SpaceShipOne, into suborbit to win the $10-million Ansari X Prize. The flight path of its successor, the three-times-as-large SpaceShipTwo, will be similar: Eve drops the craft at about 50,000 feet, and a nitrous oxidizer combines oxygen with solid rubber rocket fuel to fire a burn of about 90 seconds, enough to fling the ship to its silent apogee of about 380,000 feet, where passengers will be invited to do something that regular airlines warn you against: unbuckle your seatbelt.
All this, Virgin says, can be yours for a mere $200,000, perhaps as early as next year, although company president Will Whitehorn says you’ll have to take a number behind the 300 passengers that have already put down deposits to do it. For now, space tourists (a term the industry intensely dislikes, preferring to call them “spaceflight participants” or “space explorers”) are the cornerstone of Virgin’s business model, but with NASA struggling to fund its lofty dreams of missions to the moon and beyond, and with the shuttle headed for retirement, Virgin and dozens of other private space entrepreneurs see a golden opportunity to do something much more fundamental—and more profitable. Beyond carrying wealthy passengers into suborbital space, Whitehorn says, Virgin could also launch rockets and satellites, provide affordable transport for scientists who want to do microgravity experiments in space, and even establish a private astronaut-training program. Seen in that light, space tourists become much more than just the idle rich undertaking a mind-blowing experience for the thrill of it. Indeed, the space industry says that demand from tourists—and companies that need satellites—will provide the seed capital for what is, in effect, the privatization of space.
As I walked around the ship, I got to thinking: 100 years ago, after
the critics were forced to accept that yes, man can fly, many dismissed
flight as a diversion for the wealthy few. “The public has greatly
over-estimated the possibilities of the aeroplane, imagining that in
another generation they will be able to fly over to London in a day,”
wrote a Harvard University astronomy professor, William Pickering, in
1908. “This is manifestly impossible.”